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Sunday Music Musings December 19, 2020

December 20, 2020

One of the joys of pandemic is having the time to learn something I’ve always wanted to knuckle down and learn. The organ seems to sound best on the livestream when loud- so I hope you forgive both a loud prelude and postlude to usher in this strangest of Christmas weeks.

Today’s prelude is one of J.S.Bach’s three “Nun Komm” settings of the Leipzig Chorales. It is dark and brooding and contrapuntal, with the tune unmistakably set out in the pedal. “Savior of the Nations, Come” is #54 in the Hymnal 1982, but in Lutheran hymnals, it has many more verses. There are so many Baroque settings of this, and on into the 20th century. A fine young organist I know, Katelyn Emerson, recently wrote in her recital notes “Although I rarely start my meals with dessert, I’m sharing the settings in “reverse” order, starting with the third in organo pleno, BWV 661. I’ll never forget a friend who, upon hearing it, remarked: “Well, that says to me ‘God’s coming and he’s *angry*’ more than anything else!” The disjunct fugal subject (presented rectus and inversus) might be imagined to represent the uncomfortable angularity that worldly living imposes upon us – but the subject, perhaps the arrival of the Savior, pierces these hard angles with its inherently clear, stepwise motion. We are granted moments of reprieve in sequences ornamented by the predictability of scales – but are led without ceasing to the frenzied conclusion, which causes the subject to reach to its highest peak before all finally relaxes (with relief!) into a Picardy third.” Thank you for this great description, Katelyn!

Another blessing of pandemic is to actually have time for that meditative book about Advent music I bought a few years ago, but did not have time to read! The book is “O Come Emmanuel” by Gordon Giles, and in the chapter about “People Look East,” the Besançon carol with words by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), Giles explains how the words are inspired by the Apocryphal book of Baruch. “Baruch’s readers were literally looking eastward to Jerusalem, from which they have been exiled. Nowadays we recall that the sun rises in the east, and thus it is in that direction that we look for the rising of Christ—the advent of the son of righteousness.” Eleanor Farjeon, children’s author and poet, may be best known to you for “Morning has Broken.” She wrote People Look East for her friend Percy Deamer’s 1928 Oxford Book of Carols. Each verse ends with “Love the ___ is on the way”– guest, rose, bird, star, and Lord respectively. Giles likens this to another canticle, the Benedicite.

Our psalm again uses a chant based on Veni Emmanuel, and also this week we have been releasing a verse a day with a different one of my teen trebles singing the verse. These Great “O” Antiphons originated in the Middle Ages as antiphons (refrains) to the Magnificat on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. Each is a title for the Messiah, and each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah. They are called “O” antiphons because they all start with the word “O.” Here is our plan for the week:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom) Avery Benjamin

18 December: O Adonai (O Lord) Anne Bolt

19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) Mia Melchior

20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David) Claire Waskow

21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring) Elisabeth Wielandy

22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) Claire Siebert

23 December: O Emmanuel (O God with Us ) Niamh Kane

I am very proud of these members of our teen treble ensemble, called The Daughters of Zion!

That transitions into our offertory for the day “Daughter of Zion”, words by J.J. Eschenberg (1743-1820), to the G. F. Handel tune JUDAS MACCABEUS. Our cantor, Elizabeth Monkemeier, was a member of the Daughters of Zion when she was in High School.

Our gradual hymn is the Marian carol “The Angel Gabriel,” a Basque carol, translated by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) British priest and hymnodist of “Onward Christian Soldiers” fame. (Many choristers have been known to not-so-secretly miss-sing “Most highly flavored Lady”!)

I have really been trying to expand the diversity of my repertoire, especially with regards to woman composers of organ music. Recently I discovered a wonderful African-America composer, Evelyn Simpson Curenton. Her bio says she “earned many titles including composer, arranger, pianist, organist, vocalist, artistic director, lecturer, producer, and clinician. Her versatile skills make her one of the most sought after musicians in the area. Her talents have led her around the globe with performances in China, France, England, Italy, Austria, and a European tour with Bernice Reagon Johnson, founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Ms. Curenton has worked with some of the music industry’s best. She was commissioned to do arrangements for the Carnegie Hall concert featuring Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and the Chorus and Orchestra of New York’s acclaimed Metropolitan Opera. Several orchestras and ensembles have performed her works such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, The National Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Minnesota Orchestra, and The U.S. Marine Band. Distinguished musicians like the late Duke Ellington, George Shirley, her late sister and Naumberg winner Joy Simpson, Hubert Laws, Denyce Graves, John Blake, Angela Brown of the Metropolitan Opera, Janice Chandler-Eteme, and David Murray have also performed her works. Her music can be found on several recordings, including her own. “Reflections” is her most recent studio recording.”

And that is just the short bio! More can be found on her website. Evelyn and I share the experience of being scholarship students at the Settlement Music School, Germantown Branch in Philadelphia, as children.

Here is a highly recommended discussion of African American organ music with Simpson-Curenton, David Hurd, Adolphus Hailstork and Mickey Thomas Terry. My favorite anecdote on this webinar is her story of listening the whole Messiah everyday when she was home sick with the chicken pox as a small child—until she drove her family crazy!

Simpson-Curenton’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a glorious setting of this ancient hymn. It starts with a fanfare-like section that to me hints at “O come All Ye Faithful.” The tune is harmonized in a bluesy way and the moving sixteenth notes and trills also give it a Baroque feel.

Tomorrow afternoon we do some final recording for the Christmas Eve service, and then we look forward to its release at 4 pm on Dec. 24. I can’t say enough about all my singers down to second graders who were brave enough to submit lonely virtual recordings which magically become a choir in the hands of video editors Eric and Paula Roper. Christmas morning is on zoom at 9:30 with my family leading carols. Bring your friends and family from around the world! Some young choristers have prepared “zoom solos” in “I Saw Three Ships” and Donna Ward will lead “Go Tell it on the Mountain” from her piano!

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