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Sunday Music Musings November 14, 2020

November 15, 2020

Today’s music is an eclectic variety in service to the liturgy. The prelude is a gorgeous minor key piece, “Folktune,” by British composer Percy Whitlock (1903 – 1946), that always conjures up autumn for me. Maybe it is that Whitlock studied with another of my very favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams (as well as C.V. Stanford) at the Royal College of music. From 1921-1930, Whitlock was assistant organist at Rochester Cathedral in Kent. After that he worked as an organist in Bournemouth both at St Stephen’s Church, and as the town’s borough organist, playing at the local Pavilion Theatre. He was also a great railway enthusiast, writing under the pseudonym “Kenneth Lark.” Whitlock was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928. Near the end of his life, he lost his sight altogether, and he died in Bournemouth a few weeks before his 43rd birthday. He has a substantial number of works for organ, chorus and orchestra, although he was somewhat neglected for a while (except for the organists).

Our short organ offering at the preparation of the table is “Gottes Sohn ist kommen” (God’s Son is Coming) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). It is a German Advent hymn, but as happened last week, these pre-Advent eschatological readings call for some appropriate Advent hymns. Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or “end times.”  These readings that come up in the last few weeks before Advent refer not just to the coming of Christ, but the coming again. The gems of the Orgelbüchlein manage to encapsulate so much into a minute or two of music. Here there is a joyful running eighth-note figure in the right hand, a plucked bass-line in the left, and a reed proclaiming the chorale tune in the pedal. Plus the pedal and upper part of the right hand are in canon! All in about a minute! This hymn in our 1982 hymnal is “Once He Came in Blessing,” # 53.

Our communion solo is the beloved “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Often called a “folksong” or “Quaker tune,” it was actually composed by Robert Lowrey D.D. (1826-1899).

Robert Lowrey

Born in Philadelphia, Lowrey attended Lewisburg University and was ordained a Baptist Minister, serving in West Chester, Pennsylvania, New York City, and then to Brooklyn, ending his life at 2nd Baptist Church, Plainfield, New Jersey. Dr. Lowry has been associated with some of the most popular Sunday School hymn-books published in this country. “How Can I keep from Singing” is from one called Bright Jewels, 1869. His most famous hymn is probably “Shall We Gather at the River?” Today’s version is arranged by Ginger Littleton. There is also a version by Enya that I like a lot.

In the time of Covid, when we choral musicians are pretty much hurting, this text really helps.

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth´s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

Enya’s version includes the last verse:

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

For many years, I have played a beautiful arrangement of “Deep River” by African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941). In the same collection is a postlude on the Spiritual “Great Day.” Another hidden blessing of pandemic I have mentioned is suddenly I have time to turn the page and learn a new piece just for fun. (Then I decided to play it this week.) Here are the lyrics of the spiritual on which the organ piece is based.

from« American Negro Songs » by J. W. Work, 1940 

Great day! Great day, the righteous marching

Great day-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

Chariot rode on the mountain top-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

My God spoke and the chariot stop-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

This is the day of jubilee-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

The Lord has set His people free-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

We want no cowards in our band-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

We call for valiant hearted men-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

Going to take my breast-plate, sword and shield-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

And march boldly in the field-God’s going to build up Zion’s walls

Adolphus Hailstork received his doctorate in composition from Michigan State University, having previously studied at the Manhattan School of Music, under Vittorio Giannini and David Diamond, at the American Institute at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger (see this August blog ), and at Howard University with Mark Fax. Dr. Hailstork has written numerous works for chorus, solo voice, piano, organ, various chamber ensembles, band, orchestra, and opera which have been performed by major ensembles around the country. You can see them described on his website.

In the wonderful recent interview above, Dr. Hailstork admitted that setting music for choirs is something he does at least every day. He also credited the excellent opportunities given him growing up in the New York State public school system; having opportunities as a chorister, and having a teacher who performed his compositions for chorus and orchestra. He also explains how although his music is influenced by African American culture, he is steeped in classical and liturgical traditions. He is currently working on his Fourth Symphony, and A KNEE ON A NECK (tribute to George Floyd) for chorus and orchestra. Dr. Hailstork resides in Virginia Beach Virginia, and is Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Adolphus Hailstork

“Great Day” has a cheerful, jazzy rhythm with the tune shared by pedals and right hand. Right before the end there are a series of really dissonant chords (like the last gasp of protest) before the final triumphant ending.

As an extra bonus the bell choir will be ringing outdoors (about 10:45-11:15) as people leave or as they drive by to pick up communion. We are ringing a Celtic tune for 12 bells, 6 ringers with no sharing and socially distanced tables! We practice Saturday mornings at 9:30-10. Yesterday the tree service was kind enough to hold off their major grinding for about a half hour when they saw what we were trying to do! Then they told us we “got them in the spirit!” It was a nice pandemic moment.

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