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Sunday Music Musings November 29, 2020

November 29, 2020

I just adore Advent music. I’m excited for this week’s Advent Hymn Sing on Thursday at 7-8 in the Grace Church zoom room. The nice thing (for some of us) in the Episcopal church is the anticipation of WAITING to sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. That is a little different in pandemic times, because my choir needs to submit many of their carols for editing this week—but then we can put it behind us and do Advent! Anyway, as well as the wonderful hymns in the Advent section of the hymnal, there are many traditionally Advent-themed hymns that you find in other parts of the hymnal (Lift Up Your Heads, Wake Awake, Tell out My Soul) and Watchman Tell Us of the Night is one of these.

The Welsh composer of this tune, Joseph Parry (1841-1903), born into a poor but musical family, spent some time  in Danville, Pennsylvania in 1854, where he later started a music school. He traveled in the United States and in Wales, performing and composing, and he won several Eisteddfodau (singing competition) prizes. Parry studied at the Royal Academy of Music at Cambridge. Parry received a Doctorate in Music from the University of Cambridge; the first Welshman to receive Bachelor’s and Doctor’s degrees in music from the University. He became professor of music at the Welsh University College in Aberystwyth, and established a school of music there. Later he was lecturer and professor of music at the University College of South Wales in Cardiff (1888-1903). Parry composed vocal and instrumental music, as well as over four hundred hymn tunes. (No relation to C.H.H. Parry). This tune is also used for the Charles Wesley text “Jesus Lover of my Soul.” As I have said, tunes are names for places, places with this many ys are usually Welsh literally means “at the mouth of the river Ystwyth” in Cardiganshire.

The theme of the coming of the Prince of Peace makes this a good Advent hymn. The text is by John Bowring (1792-1872), a Unitarian polyglot, translator, editor, poet and politician. The newly knighted Bowring became the fourth Governor of Hong Kong in 1854. His other most famous hymn text is probably “in the Cross of Christ I Glory.” I was recently was reminded that a late Grace parishoner, lay reader and poet, Anna Bowring Kirby was a direct descendent.

The organ setting is by Paul Lindsley Thomas (b.1929), a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, and Fellow of the American Guild of Organists (highest rank). The 90 year old Canon Dr. Thomas was honored this year by the Church Music Institute (CMI) a Life Achievement Award. The Joyce and Paul Thomas Wing is named in his honor at St. Michael and All Angels, Dallas, 1994. (Small world moment—this is where Eleanor Wroath sang after leaving Madison before returning to the UK.)

As we are back in lockdown, livestreaming without congregation, I have put in a familiar Trisagion, hoping you will sing along at home. David Hurd’s service music is oft-used at Grace. Dr. Hurd (b. 1950) was Professor of Sacred Music and Director of Chapel Music at the General Theological Seminary, New York City for 28 years. He is presently the Director of Music at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in New York City. 

Our psalm setting (Psalm 80;1-7) uses the tune of “O Come Emmanuel” as the basis for an Anglican Chant (St. Martin’s Psalter, St. James Music Press.)

On the first Sunday in Advent I always play a Gospel fanfare by Helmut Walcha, to the tune “O Heiland Reiss die Himmel auf.” The text to this tune in our hymnal (#64) is a rather tame “O Heavenly Word, eternal Light” whereas the German text means “O savior, rend the heavens wide!” Rip them open! Come down and save us! This is captured in Walcha’s grand setting in which a flourish based on the tune preceeds a loud rendering in the pedal. Walcha (1907-1991) was a blind German organist who specialized in the works of the Dutch and German baroque masters and is known for his recordings of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. He played for many years at the Dreikönigskirche (from 1946) in Frankfurt. In 1982 I travelled to Germany to meet him and got to hear him improvise at the organ, and then we were invited back to his home where his wife Ursula hosted us for tea. He had a pedal harpsichord at the house and offered to play. “What work of Bach would you like to hear?” He basically had them all memorized! He was a beloved teacher to many great American organists.

Walcha at the Dreikönigskirche organ, his house organ, view of the Dreikönigskirche

Our anthem is Advent Message by British composer and organist Martin How. Martin John Richard How MBE (born 1931) was Educated at Repton School, where he was a music scholar, he was awarded an organ scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, where he read music and theology. How is best known for his work with the Royal School of Church Music, developing the RSCM “Chorister Training Scheme” which is something we still use at Grace Madison.

And finally the postlude gives me a chance to talk about the great Advent hymntune Helmsley. Charles Callahan (b. 1951), that incredibly prolific organ composer, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduate of The Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pa., and The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC wrote this short setting (see more about this composer in July 4’s blog). “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” is another great text by Charles Wesley. I will miss singing this verse

Ev’ry eye shall now behold him,

robed in dreadful majesty;

those who set at naught and sold him,

pierced, and nailed him to the tree,

deeply wailing, deeply wailing,

shall the true Messiah see.

First Advent does not really contain “gentle” music! The great tune Helmsley cannot be discussed without mentioning at least four composers. Our hymnal credits Thomas Arne (1710-1778) with Ralph Vaughan Williams for the harmonies. I will let the great Paul Westermeyer explain it:

“John Wesley attributed the tune HELMSLEY to Thomas Olivers in Wesley’s 1765 Sacred Melodies with his brother’s text of “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” However, Olivers is said to have heard the tune on the street somewhere. Since the first line resembles a tune by violinist and composer Thomas Augustine Arne composed for Thomas and Sally, or The Sailor’s Return in 1761, it is speculated the tune was composed by Arne. Most likely, the tune comes from a 1763 edition Martin Madan‘s Collection of Psalms and Hymn Tunes Sung at the Chapel of Lock Hospital. Madan (1726-1790) was the chaplain at Lock Hospital.

(From Let the people sing: hymn tunes in perspective by Paul Westermeyer, 2005, GIA Publications, Inc.)

I hope you enjoy this long explanation of some short music as a way to meditate on Advent hymns. As well as the hymnsing on Thursday, I will be playing Advent piano music on Fridays after noonday prayer.

My favorite Advent calendar, slightly the worse for wear!

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