• 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…

  • Essays

    Herbert Howells: Musical Stewardship & Innovation

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.] When he was born, Queen Victoria had almost another decade to rule. He died near the end of Margaret Thatcher’s first term. While he lived through nine decades of remarkable change, composer Herbert Howells came of age at a time when artists were already being haunted by cultural turmoil and uncertainty. In 1913, when Howells was 21, the French poet Charles Péguy judged that “the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years.” While some Promethean souls were energized by the possibilities opened up by the…

  • Essays

    The wondrous mystery in song

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Touchstone magazine.] When I was in high school, a remarkable music teacher introduced me to some recordings of Christmas music by a group called the Elizabethan Singers, led by Louis Halsey. The records featured mid-twentieth-century arrangements of traditional carols, some of which were familiar (“Away in a Manger,” to the tune CRADLE SONG, in a delicate setting by Hugo Cole, or “Good King Wenceslas,” arranged by Malcolm Williamson, or “The Holly and the Ivy,” set by Benjamin Britten). But many of the arrangements were of texts and tunes I had never heard, but which have since become…

  • Composers,  Essays

    Christus Victoriae

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.] The medieval city of Ávila, seventy miles northwest of Madrid, is best-known to Christians as the birthplace of St. Teresa de Jesus, the sixteenth-century Carmelite nun, mystic, and reformer. Captured by Moors in A.D. 714, the city was retaken by Christian forces in 1088, after which a network of massive stone walls and towers were constructed to protect the city and its new cathedral, construction of which began around 1091. The apse of the cathedral is one of the turrets in the city walls, possibly evoking echoes of Psalm 46 to generations of believers: “The Lord…

  • Composers,  Essays

    Echoes of glory

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the July/Auigust 2016 issue of Touchstone magazine.] In a 1990 essay entitled “‘Sing Artistically for God’: Biblical Directives for Church Music,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger observed that “church music is faith that has become a form of culture.” But in late modernity, “the inner connection of faith to culture is in the throes of a crisis.” This crisis is the result of the fact that for centuries, at least since the Enlightenment, “faith and contemporary culture have drifted apart more and more.” Since the eighteenth century, cultural life — especially in the arts — has been pursued  with a spirit of defiant emancipation from…

  • Essays,  Repertoire

    Bend down thy gracious ear

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine.] The Reformation’s lasting influence on the music of the Church begins with the publication in early 1524 of Etlich Cristlich lider Lobgesan, the first Lutheran hymnbook. Also known as the Achtliederbuch, the Hymnal of Eight, it contained the German texts for just eight hymns (four of which were by Luther) and only five tunes. One of the texts — printed under the heading “Der Psalm de Profundis” — was Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 130. Better known by the first several words in the German, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir,” this hymn has been translated…

  • Essays

    Passionate praise

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine. 2017 marked the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi.] Douglas Adams, best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once offered a brief catalog of the possible range of musical expression. “Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human,” explained Adams. “Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.” Like all caricatures, Adams’s summary contains a valuable insight into something that happened in music history, and in Western culture more generally, between the early eighteenth century…

  • Essays

    A Tudor tutorial

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.] If asked on a game show or in some artsy version of Trivial Pursuit to connect industrialist Andrew Carnegie with music, most of us would answer “Carnegie Hall.” As it happens, New York’s famed concert venue is only one performance space made possible by Andrew Carnegie’s sense of noblesse oblige. Carnegie’s home of Pittsburgh and its suburb of Homestead, Pennsylvania also have concert halls bearing his name, as does Lewisburg, West Virginia and Dunfermline, Scotland, his birthplace. Dumfermline is also the home of the Carnegie UK Trust, one of the many charitable organizations enabled by Carnegie’s…

  • Essays

    Taught by melodious sonnets

    by Ken Myers [This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine.] No composer in the twentieth century had a greater influence on the English-speaking church’s musical life — and on the presence of sacred texts in concert halls — than did Ralph Vaughan Williams. Born in 1872 to an English rector and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, young Ralph (rhymes with “safe”) studied piano and violin as a boy. At 18, he enrolled in the Royal College of Music before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge. In both settings he was tutored in composition by some of the giants of English Church music in…