Music for a meditative season. . .
In our hurried lives, we moderns sometimes have trouble slowing down. . .even just a little. The season of Lent provides a welcome boost in that direction. Few things can force us to give up our frenetic pace, but in order to experience Lent in all its somber richness, it is not only advisable, but truly necessary, to slow down. The demands of our daily lives may not easily allow for this, but if we don’t regularly set some time aside–whether for meditation, prayer, reflection, or just simply sitting still and listening–we risk missing the transcendent glory of this season and the many spiritual gifts it offers.
Bach’s music has always fit hand in glove with meditative reflection, offering a true refuge in all times and seasons. Lent is no exception. What could be more meaningful than meditating to some of the beautiful slow movements from Bach’s trio sonatas for organ? (For more about Bach’s trio sonatas, see music notes from January 22). This Sunday, I’ll be playing two of these as preludes. But the sublime nature of this music comes to us in subtle ways. In fact, if we don’t quiet down, both literally and figuratively, we may entirely miss the most beautiful moments in these pieces. Even if you’re not accustomed to sitting quietly during the preludes, I urge you to give it a try. See how different it feels to sit still when you enter the sanctuary. Meaningful silence in a loving community of Christians is not awkward or strange at all; rather, it is something beautiful and blessed, especially during somber seasons like Lent. The stirring silence during this past week’s Ash Wednesday organ preludes told me something very special was going on in our sacred space.
Bach’s beautiful prelude on Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein — this one from the Orgelbüchlein–graces our 8:30 offertory. (For more on the Orgelbüchlein, see music notes from February 12) This chorale reminds us that, especially when we find ourselves in hours of greatest need, God is there. In times of illness, sorrow, and death, God loves us and is never far away.
If the first hymn sounds incredibly familiar, congratulations… you’ve been paying attention! We sang the same tune (Deo Gracias) to a different text just this past Sunday, at the Feast of the Transfiguration. (See last week’s notes for more on this famous tune.) As we begin our Lenten journeys, what better text could send us on our way than O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High? This rich poetry is from an early Latin hymn containing 23 stanzas (aren’t you glad we won’t sing them all this morning?). If God’s love is at the center of everything, this wonderful hymn reminds us just how incredible the power of love can be.
Healey Willan’s stirring hymn setting of Deo Gracias was one of our preludes last Sunday; this week, I couldn’t resist using it again, but this time as a postlude. (For more on Willan, see last week’s notes.) It is preceded by a strong, though far more straightforward, setting of the tune by David N. Johnson (1922-1987). You will certainly recognize Johnson’s name, if only because he appears in our weekly worship service bulletins as the composer of the Kyrie eleison we regularly use. Johnson, a brilliant American organist, composer, educator, choral clinician, and lecturer, published well over 300 compositions, most of them for church use. Perhaps one of his best-known choral works is The Lone, Wild Bird, paired with the American tune, Prospect. We often sing this as an introit (see hymn 320).
And speaking of American composers, we are in for a treat at the 11:00 offertory, which features Bostonian William Billings’ amazing round (or canon), When Jesus Wept (it appears in our hymnal at #312). Billings (1746-1800) is widely regarded as the father of American choral music. Originally a tanner by trade, and lacking formal training in music, Billings created what is now recognized as a uniquely American style: energetic, rugged and a bit rough at the edges, but forceful and always stirring. Virtually all of Billings’ music was written for four-part chorus, singing a cappella. His many hymns and anthems were published mostly in book-length collections, and he often wrote the texts for his own compositions. When Jesus Wept appeared in his earliest collection, The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770). Billings wrote long prefaces to his works in which he explained (often in an endearingly eccentric prose style) the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed. His writings reflect his extensive experience as a singing master and provide valuable information on choral performance practices in his day. In its heyday, Billings’ work was very popular, but his career was hampered by the primitive state of copyright law in America at the time. And with changes in the public’s musical taste (reflecting a love for all things European), Billings’ fortunes declined. He died in abject poverty and, for years after his death, his music was almost completely neglected. However, a Billings revival occurred in the latter part of the 20th century. As Americans, we should be very proud that his indigenous style is now a celebrated part of our musical landscape. This morning, in true singing master style, I will be stepping away from the organ and out into the congregation, where the choir will join me in leading the singing of When Jesus Wept as a four-part canon. If you don’t know what that means, fear not! It will be my job to explain it to you; and with our choir’s help, I feel certain that this bit of risk-taking will be well worth the effort. The sheer raw power in Billings’ profound piece will be fully evident to all who sing it.
When Jesus Wept has had a lasting impact on American music even apart from its use as a choral piece. In William Schuman’s famous New England Triptych, it appears as the theme for his second movement. Enjoy…