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Sunday Music Musings October 17, 2020

October 17, 2020

This week I decided to have my cantor, Elizabeth, sing one more hymn. The stage of pandemic we are in is that we have started to livestream but we have not let any congregation in yet; that will start in a week or so. So while you are all still watching from home, I am hoping you are singing from home. The hymn “O God of Earth and Altar” combines a poet I admire (G.K.Chesterton 1874-1936) with a tune by a favorite composer (Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)-and pronounce his name correctly-“Rafe”) and a text that everyone needs to hear.

 O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

2 From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

3 Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

As I often say, tunes are usually named for places, and King’s Lynn is a seaport and market town in Norfolk, England, 98 miles north of London. Vaughan Williams collected folksongs beginning in 1903, many of which tunes found their way into the Hymnal (1906) and his chamber and orchestral compositions. In January 1905 he went to stay at a small commercial hotel in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. In the week that he was there he collected some seventy-six songs and four tunes, and a further ten songs in September 1906. Many of these came from farmhands and sailors.

Let's move to King's Lynn, Norfolk: it's beautiful – all cobbles, alleys  and warehouses | Property | The Guardian
King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England

James Biery’s prelude sets the tune clearly in the left hand on a strong diapason (principal organ sound) stop, accompanied by flowing strings. I must admit that our new livestream does not yet have the kinks worked out in terms of organ sound, and we are working to fix that, so I hope it comes out clearly! Biery (b. 1956) is an American organist who is Minister of Music at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. He was Director of Music at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1996-2010.

I thought I’d have the canticle sung on Sunday, instead of another organ setting while we wait to improve the organ audio, so a Rite II setting of the Venite “Come Let Us SIng to the Lord” from the hymnal (S-35) is quite nice. It is by Jack Noble White (b. 1938) of “Surely it is God who saves me” fame.

I can’t imagine anyone has set more hymn-tunes in the 20th century than Charles Callahan (b. 1951). This meditative setting of “Joyful, Joyful” is from his partita on the hymn (based of course, on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), full of charming short movements. Callahan holds degrees from Curtis and Catholic University, and is a prolific composer, church musician, consultant and recording artist.

Richard Billingham (b. 1934) worked for many years as Associate Professor of Music at the University of Illinois and Organist at the First Methodist Church, Chicago. He has set many spirituals, both chorally and for organ. Since we are nearing the end of a long series of Old Testament readings on Moses, I thought I would include this bluesy setting of “When Israel was in Egypt’s Land” (a tune called Tubman in many hymnals.) The tune name of course, speaks to how this spiritual about the deliverance of Moses and the Israelites was code for slaves trying to escape bondage by travelling north on the underground railroad. Today it puts me in mind of the over-representation of prisoners of color in our penal system. Let us pray and work to change systemic racism everywhere. Also, every week I seem to find a New Jersey connection. Did you know about Cape May’s connection to Harriet Tubman?

This week we had another virtual hymnsing, which was good for my soul (but taxing on my voice—50 minutes of straight hymning was tiring.) Thank goodness I have family singing with me, thank you Jabez and Grace!

Truthfully, the zoom choir rehearsals are also challenging—I am so happy to see everyone, but trying to embrace process and education over just singing on mute. And I miss the energy I get back from my singers. We all do.

The teen girls actually met in the train station tunnel (great acoustics, open air) and did some a capella singing in person (masked and distanced – with their parents’ permission.) This Friday I felt the most successful with the “Red” Choir—grades 2-5 on zoom (and the 6th-7th graders that followed). They all have their manipulatives, and their hymnals. We are establishing a kind of routine, starting with vocalizing bubbles through straws into water (not something we will do in the choir room), having some sort of very physical stretch/warm-up, some solfege—showing our hand signals in the screen, some “dictation” on their large staff paper, then a hymn of the day, with a rhythm of the day (the 2 kinds of ti-ti), and a final song. The ½ hour flies by, but everyone participates, even unmuting themselves and singing by themselves (the only way to sing on zoom).

The choir room threw up on my dining room table…

When this crazy thing is over, they are going to have some strong musicianship background! Everyone is learning to do it themselves because there is no relying on a strong singer near you. I am so thankful we are starting to establish this routine, and that they are still coming. Also one of the kids came up with the most amazing tongue twister this week: “licorice twizzler”–try THAT 3 times fast!

And my six lady bell choir is bundling up and meeting outside on Saturday mornings! Click here for a snippet.

I wish you a wonderful week.

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