• Advent,  Christmas,  Essays

    Resting in Love’s quiet watch

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Touchstone magazine.] Born in 1839 in the small city of Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger was a poster child for musical prodigies. His father, a financial agent for the tiny principality’s monarch, was not himself musically gifted. But acknowledging his son’s remarkable abilities, he arranged for Josef — then only 5 years old — to be taught by a music teacher in Schlanders, 170 kilometers away in northern Italy. There the boy was taught music theory, piano, and organ. A second pedal board was affixed to the instrument to accommodate his short legs. The investment paid off,…

  • Essays

    With Mary and a cloud of witnesses

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Touchstone magazine.] There are many texts that have been employed in the music of Holy Week. The Passion accounts in the Gospels are the most immediate candidates, and have produced — augmented with sensitive and theologically alert poetry — some of the most memorable works in the canon of sacred music (e.g., J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion). The book of Lamentations is another biblical source for musical expression during Holy Week (see last year’s column, “The depths of solemn grandeur”). Beginning in the fifteenth century, many of the greatest composers working in the Western Church wrote settings of…

  • Essays

    The depths of solemn grandeur

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine.] Many years ago, my undisguised disapproval of worship music that is inspired by contemporary pop music was (somewhat glibly) diagnosed by an acquaintance as an expression of a severely rationalist temperament. “You don’t like these new praise songs because you don’t want worship to be too emotional,” explained my interlocutor. “Actually,” I responded, “the problem with this music is that it isn’t emotional enough. It typically lacks the aesthetic resources to express the depth of joy, sorrow, gratitude, and awe that worship demands.” Well, those weren’t exactly my words at the time, but it’s what I was…

  • Composers,  Essays,  Hymns

    Not just a one-hit wonder

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Touchstone magazine. Recordings of musical works mentioned are assembled at the bottom of this page.] If the name of the composer Hans Leo Hassler is recognized at all, it is probably in connection with a melody frequently sung and heard during Holy Week. In hymnals, the tune is often identified as Passion Chorale, and it is the melody to which we sing the passiontide hymn “O sacred Head, now wounded.” The tune first appeared in print in 1601, in a collection of secular songs by Hassler. The text that originally accompanied that tune was a wistful five-stanza song of…

  • Composers,  Essays

    Artful repentance

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine.] The Psalms, C. S. Lewis reminds us, are poems, “and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Since they are lyrics, the psalms, Lewis insists, are characterized by “all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” We must always resist the temptation to reduce our reading of a psalm to a set of neatly contained bullet points, since the perception of meaning in poetry always requires our imaginative participation in the text. And singing usually helps. We don’t have access…

  • Composers,  Essays

    Eloquent lamentation

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Touchstone magazine.] Among musically knowledgeable listeners, even those who admire the music of the high Renaissance, the work of Orlande de Lassus is woefully unfamiliar. It was not always so. During his lifetime, in the second half of the sixteenth century, Lassus was easily the most famous composer in Europe. With contemporaries that included Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, such fame is a remarkable tribute to his artistic accomplishments. Another contemporary, the celebrated French poet Pierre de Ronsard, hailed Lassus as one “who like a bee has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients and moreover seems alone…

  • Composers,  Essays

    A Mysterious Sense of Rightness

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine.] Few composers have prompted as intense and diverse a chorus of responses as Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). His contemporary Johannes Brahms dismissed Bruckner’s massive symphonies as “a swindle that will be forgotten in a few years.” On the other hand, more than a few years later, Ludwig Wittgenstein would remark: “I don’t believe a note of Gustav Mahler. I believe every note of Anton Bruckner.” While some listeners are attracted to his music at first hearing — an attraction that deepens with time — others adamantly deny that there’s anything there worth loving. In 2012, Jessica Ducken, a…

  • Composers,  Essays

    The sound of perpetual light

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.] One of the most popular works of twentieth-century sacred choral music is the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Completed in 1947 and still performed regularly in concert, Duruflé’s Requiem is often linked with the earlier (and probably better known) Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, which dates to 1888. Both works are marked by a comforting, serene spirit and both reflect the influence of French musical impressionism, which offers a harmonic vocabulary of mystery. But Duruflé’s setting is distinguished by its pervasive use of Gregorian chant melodies. In the opening Introit, after an introductory measure of shimmering…

  • Composers,  Essays

    Schütz: Baroque before Bach

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.] Exactly one hundred years before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1685, his greatest German predecessor was born in Köstritz, a small town in what is now Saxony. Heinrich Schütz was arguably the greatest German composer before Bach, the first German composer to enjoy an international reputation. Unlike Bach’s extensive clan, the Schütz family was more involved in commerce and civil service than music. Heinrich’s father, Christoph, eventually became mayor of nearby Weißenfels, but he worked as an innkeeper in that town when Heinrich was a boy. It was there that Heinrich’s natural musical talent…

  • Essays,  Repertoire

    Bach to basics

    Why “Lutheran Mass” is not a contradiction in terms by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.] When the words “Bach” and “mass” appear in proximity, the subject at hand is usually the magisterial Mass in B Minor. Composed during the last two years of his life as the last great project of his musical career, the Mass in B Minor is an aural textbook of forms of musical expression that Johann Sebastian Bach had explored and mastered for decades. Bach scholar and biographer Christoph Wolff has observed that, “just as theological doctrine survived over the centuries in the words of the Mass, so Bach’s…