• Interviews,  Reading

    Recommended reading: Melodious order

    In his 1986 book Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin argued that the central fact of modern culture is “the elimination of teleology.” If one had need of reducing the complex systemic confusions of modernity to a single phrase, he could do a lot worse. Modern culture — submitting abjectly and irrationally to the idol of Choice — cannot acknowledge the existence of purposes or ends in the cosmos that would direct or constrict our choosing. The genealogy of this idolatry is variously explained, but there is a rough consensus among scholars from various disciplines and diverse belief systems (including some who celebrate modernity) that the Enlightenment of the eighteenth…

  • Service music

    Septuagesima (February 17, 2019)

    This Sunday, we begin the pre-Lenten season, a period in which the structure of our liturgy changes. The name suggests that this Sunday is 70 days before Easter. Actually, it is only 63 days before Easter, but the name is still fitting, since the day falls within the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period (the 61st to the 70th day) before Easter. Our opening hymn — “Give praise and glory unto God” — presents 3 of the 9 verses of a hymn by Johann Jakob Schütz (1640-1690). First published in 1675, the German original has inspired at least 6 different English translations. In addition to the version in our Hymnal, there are translations…

  • Repertoire

    Saul on the Road to Damascus, Part 3

    The week before last, I introduced readers to Heinrich Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? (SWV 415). This short work presents the moment when the words of Jesus come to Saul, the initial phase of his conversion. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It will be hard for you to kick against the thorns. Calvin Stapert (whose books on various musical topics I often cite) wrote to share with me some comments on how Schütz constructed this short work. With Stapert’s permission, I’ve posted his comments below. First, here is another recording of Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? featuring the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted…

  • Service music

    Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 10, 2019)

    This is the last Sunday before the pre-Lenten season, hence the last Sunday until Easter in which “Alleluias” will be heard in our liturgy. Our opening hymn — “Praise the Lord through every nation” — punctuates its praise in both verses with an enthusiastic Alleluia. It also boasts a wonderfully ecumenical genealogy. The tune to this hymn is best known as WACHET AUF, though for some reason is designated in English in our Hymnal as SLEEPERS, WAKE. We more typically sing this during Advent with the text “Wake, awake for night is flying.” It was written by Lutheran pastor Philip Nicolai (1556-1608). The text to the present hymn was written…

  • Service music

    Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (February 3, 2019)

    February 2nd marks the feast day known variously as Candlemas (sometimes spelled Candlemass), the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus, and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Book of Common Prayer (see the table page xliv) and Hymnal uses the latter term, which reflects the reason for Mary and Joseph’s presentation of their Son as prescribed in Leviticus 12. It is an event in the life of Jesus that has been depicted in countless paintings and icons. Musically, every setting of the Nunc dimittis — the song Simeon uttered on this occasion — commemorates this moment and its cosmic significance. Our service acknowledges the events remembered…

  • Repertoire

    More on Saul->Paul & music

    After last week’s post concerning Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of the conversion of the apostle Paul, a reader sent a note to remind me of another work based on the account of the confrontation on the road to Damascus. Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wrote a short piece using the words of the ascended Jesus to the young Church’s chief adversary: Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? (SWV 415). In translation, the text reads: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It will be hard for you to kick against the thorns. Scored for 14 voices plus instruments, it is a dramatic work displaying the influence of the Italian polychoral style on Schütz…

  • Service music

    Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 27, 2019)

    The Collect for this Sunday pleads with God for protection: “in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us.” Such a prayer can be uttered in confidence because God’s people have been assured (in Psalm 46) that “God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.” The familiarity of our opening hymn — “A mighty fortress is our God” — may disguise the fact that the first three verses of Luther’s text were inspired by Psalm 46. Luther’s…

  • Repertoire

    Celebrating the Conversion of St. Paul with some help from Felix Mendelssohn

    Today (January 25th) is the day on which we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul. The only musical portrayal of that remarkable event that I’m aware of is by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). The oratorio Paulus, premiered in 1836, was the work that catapulted the twenty-seven-year-old Mendelssohn into international prominence. Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd writes: Paulus was greeted with a rare, nearly unanimous critical acclaim. A clear indication of its success was its rapid reception in foreign countries, including England, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States (where three performances followed in quick succession in Boston, New York and Baltimore between 1837 and 1839).* The text of…

  • Service music

    Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 20, 2019)

    Since our Gospel reading is the account from St. Matthew of Jesus’s baptism, our service features two hymns that are centered around the baptism and the Baptist. Our Processional Hymn is one we could have sung during Advent, but I saved it for this week. Despite his profound role in the history of redemption, John the Baptist doesn’t have a lot of hymnody connected with him, at least not in our Hymnal. But we do have “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry.” The text is by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), who was noted in his lifetime for his Latin poetry. John Henry Newman published a collection of a number of Coffin’s…

  • Service music

    First Sunday after Epiphany (January 13, 2019)

    On the Sunday after Epiphany, our congregation will sing as its processional hymn “All people that on earth do dwell” (#278). The text for this familiar hymn is a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 100, which — along with Psalm 93 and Psalms 95-99 — celebrate God’s rule over all of Creation. The Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 40 declared that the glory of the Lord would be revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together.” Likewise, the angels told the shepherds that the joy introduced by Christ’s birth “shall be to all people.” As we sang last week on Epiphany, the coming of the wise men from the east signaled the…