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Sunday Music Musings August 29, 2020

August 29, 2020

Our prelude this week is by our good friend Mark Miller, from “Roll Down Justice, Sacred Songs and Social Justice”. Mark serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School and is a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University. He also is the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit. He is a Yale and Julliard educated passionate composer and advocate for the power of music to change the world. 

Mark Miller, composer-in-residence for Harmonium Choral Society among a million other accomplishments

Mark has been known to write certain pieces very spontaneously. He says “I woke up one morning almost 7 years ago and was thinking, dreaming, about a more inclusive faith community. The United Methodists had been struggling (as always) over the worth of the LGBTQ+ community, and this song came out as a response to that debate. I might have had some help with the phrase from I Dream A World: Portrait Book of Black Women and the Langston Hughes poem ”I Dream a World.” It is dedicated to his friends Cassondra, Julian and Lydia, some of you around Drew and Harmonium have definitely heard them sing. One year, we I taught this to the children in Bibles School (the songs provided with Bible School curricula are usually dreck-but that is for another day….). I am thinking of the little motions we did to teach the kids the words…

Our wonderful staff singer, Brandon is so expressive and has the coolest posters in the corner of the room where he records. He is also a graduate of the Drew community.

The best part of the week for me was a visit from my daughter Virginia who I hadn’t seen since February. Since she goes to work every day as a music therapist, we mostly hung out outdoors, but she joined in our hymn singing masked from the porch!

Our hymn of the day is an American tune from The Hesperian Harp (1848), the largest shapenote publication in the Nineteenth Century. The melody is attributed to Freeman Lewis (1780-1859) born in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He was a Pennsylvania surveyor and school teacher who wrote music on the side. The choir has sung an Epiphany song by him, O Thou Who by a Star (Dunlap’s Creek). As I say every week, tunes are usually named for places, but I have no clue about this one (Bourbon), although Lewis did have a “French connection” when In 1816, he accompanied Simon Bernard, a former French general and engineer of Napoleon I, in one of his early expeditions in America.

The hymn text is by American clergyman Charles William Everest (1814-1877). Born in East Windsor, Connecticut, he graduated Trinity College, Hartford in 1838, and took Holy Orders in 1842. He was rector at Hamden, Connecticut, from 1842 to 1873, and also agent for the Society for the Increase of the Ministry. This text comes from Visions of Death, and Other Poems (1833).  It is set to other tunes in other hymnals including Breslau, Erhalt uns Herr, and Gardiner.

Speaking of good German tunes, Wachet Auf is used in our hymnal to set not only “Wake Awake” (“Sleepers Wake”, the Advent text and famous Bach Cantata) but also this text, “Praise the Lord through every nation” by Rhijnvis Feith (1753-1824), Dutch patriot and man of letters who was also a lawyer and mayor of Zwolle. He helped compile the Dutch hymnal Evangelische Gezangen (1806).

It was translated by James Montgomery (1771-1853), himself the author of over 400 hymns including “Angels from the realms of glory,” “Go to dark Gethsemane,” “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” “Born in Scotland, the son of Moravian parents who died on a West Indies mission field while he was in boarding school, Montgomery inherited a strong religious bent, a passion for missions, and an independent mind. He also protested against slavery, the lot of boy chimney sweeps, and lotteries.” Hymnary.org

The tune has an even greater pedigree, with the original tune by Hans Sachs (1494-1576), adapted by Philp Nicolai (1556-1608), and harmonized by J.S. Bach (and beautifully sung by the Roper family).

Hans Sachs - Wikipedia
Hans Sachs

Sachs was a cobbler-poet and the subject of Wagner’s opera, Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor who argued with Calvinists and at one point fled the Spanish Catholics. He pastored a church in Unna, Westphalia during which time the plague struck twice, and Nicolai wrote both “Wie Schoen Leuchtet der Morgenstern” and “Wachet Auf” during plague times! Nicolai’s last years were spent as Pastor of St. Katherine’s Church in Hamburg. J.S. Bach’s harmonization comes from the end of Cantata 140, from his mature Leipzig period (1731).

So now that many of you have hymnals at home, I hope you will always take a peek at the bottom of each hymn for those riches of information about author, translator, tune, composer and arranger. What rabbit holes to dive down are contained therein!

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