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Sunday Music Musings November 21, 2020

November 22, 2020

Today I will write about Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving hymns, and St. Cecilia.

St. Cecilia poster from my dining room!

First, our prelude on Sunday will be J.S.Bach’s Toccata in D minor –not THAT one—one called the “Dorian.” The piece has no actual key signature, the sharps are written in, and in some phrases the scale is more modal (no C#) although it is certainly present in the driving opening theme. This BWV 538 was written during the Weimar period between 1708 and 1717. Bach even notates contrasting manual changes himself, which is unusual. After working this piece up over the summer, I thought it seemed appropriate for a grand Christ the King prelude, especially since we have worked out the kinks with the organ audio in livestream. Everyone associates the other Toccata in D minor with Halloween, but THIS one has the crunchiest dissonances!

Our pandemic Thanksgiving will be on zoom, but with music. The “big three” hymns to me are “We Gather Together,” Come Ye Thankful People,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” The last will make a few subtle appearances in our Sunday’s service, as well as a hymn by Handel, “Rejoice the Lord is King.”

Our cantor will sing “Rejoice the Lord is King” which is Hymn 481, tune name Gopsal. It is a hymn much better suited to solo singing than congregational singing, maybe because of the downward seventh leap on the word “again.” G.F.Handel was of course, the exact contemporary of Bach (b. Halle, Germany, 1685; d. London, England, 1759). Handel studied music with Zachau, organist at the Halle Cathedral, and traveled and studied in Italy. But he was the darling of the English, and settled there in 1713. He wrote a large number of instrumental sonatas and concertos, operas, various anthems for church and royal festivities, organ concertos, and of course oratorios including his most famous–Messiah, in 1741.  The text “Rejoice the Lord is King” is by the great Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788), “The Bard of Methodism,” and author of about 6,500 hymns. Please allow me to save a full blog on Wesley for another day!

The hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” (Nun Danket Alle Gott) is found in the Hymnal 1982 at 396 (perky Baroque rhythm) and 397 (more traditional chorale harmonization.) This tune is well-loved through the ages, and appears in many organ works and cantatas. The organ setting by late-romantic Leipzig composer Sigfried Karg-Elert (1877 – 1933) is a Thanksgiving tradition for many organists. It is super fun to play, although it alludes to the chorale tune rather subtly. You’ve got to love a composer who changed his name to include his mother’s maiden name, and composed lots of music for harmonium (and flute!). We also allude to the tune in our chant setting of Psalm 100.

On Thanksgiving morning, we will have a morning prayer and music service in the Grace church zoom room at 9 a.m. Bring your hymnals, or download the bulletin we will provide, and sing along (on mute)  ending with Nun Danket. Why not invite your family to join you from around the world? If you are being Covid-safe and not visiting, you can still attend zoom church together!

We will open Thanksgiving with “We Gather Together.” I am so old I remember singing this in public school! The tune Kremser comes from a sixteenth-century Dutch folk song “Ey, wilder den wilt.” Later the tune was combined with a Dutch patriotic hymn, which celebrated Dutch freedom from Spanish rule. It is named for its translator/arranger Eduard Kremser (1838 – 1914). He was a choir director, conductor, composer and musicologist, who edited a lot of folk music, and provided the text we translate as “We Gather Together” in a collection for men’s chorus.

The final of the “big three” is the harvest hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People Come,” tune: St. George’s, Windsor. As I am always saying, tunes are usually named for places, and this refers to St. George’s Chapel, Windsor castle. The composer of the tune, Sir George Job Elvey (1816–1893) was organist at St. George’s, beginning in 1835, playing for and teaching many royals. (The Grace Church choirs visited Windsor castle on our first day in England in 2015, but the inside of the Chapel was closed.) The composer of the text, Henry Alford (1810 –1871) was an English churchman, theologian, scholar, poet, hymnodist, and writer who came from 5 generations of clergymen.

So do please join us in the Grace Church Zoom room at 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving, when my daughter Grace, former head chorister, promises to get up early and help my husband and me lead hymns from the piano in our dining room.

I will also play some lovely Thanksgiving piano preludes by Thomas Keesecker (b.1956). He has enjoyed a long career as a church musician, which has allowed him the freedom to be creative in composing music in a variety of styles. He studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His church music for piano has a lovely meditative feel.

Finally, the reference to our England trip reminded me that Nov. 22 is also St. Cecilia’s Day. St. Cecilia was a 3rd Century Virgin martyr, considered the patron saint of music, and often depicted at the organ. Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was commissioned to compose A Hymn for St. Cecilia by the musicians’ guild, “the Worshipful Company of Musicians” in 1960. He used a text by poet Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007), the second wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here we are singing it in Evensong at Winchester Cathedral in 2015, paired with the amazing photography of Andrea Gilhuley.

Grace Choirs at Winchester, 2015

Happy memories and Happy St. Cecilia’s Day!

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