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Sunday Music Musings January 23, 2021

January 24, 2021

The hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind contains one of my favorite lines of all time “reclothe us in our rightful mind.” I often feel the need to pray those words! The pairing of this text by the American Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier  (1807-1892) with the beautiful tune Repton by England’s most beloved Victorian composer C.H.H.Parry (1848-1918) has actually made this into one of England’s most beloved hymns.

Whittier began life as a Massachusetts farm-boy and shoemaker, and subsequently became a successful journalist, editor and poet. Devoted to social causes and reform, Whittier worked passionately for a series of abolitionist newspapers and magazines, was active politically and a prolific poet. This text comes from his poem “The Brewing of Soma,” a ritual drink Vedic priests used in an attempt to experience divinity. The poem concludes that rather than the trappings of music (!) incense and trances, the divine is found in silence (very Quaker) and in the “still small voice of calm.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry was an influential 19th-century English composer, probably best known today for his setting of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem and the coronation anthem I Was Glad. After attempting a career in insurance, Parry worked on Grove’s original Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and became professor of composition and musical history at the Royal College of Music; he was also professor of music at the University of Oxford from 1900 to 1908. Parry’s influence as a teacher was profound, including among his students Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge and John Ireland.

(From Wikipedia): Parry originally wrote the music for what became Repton in 1888 for the contralto aria ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’ in his oratorio Judith. In 1924 George Gilbert Stocks, director of music at the Repton School set it to ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ in a supplement of tunes for use in the school chapel. Despite the need to repeat the last line of words, Repton provides an inspired matching of lyrics and tune.

C.H.H.Parry

In the Grace Church Choir, Parry is also referred to as “Eleanor’s ancestor” (our dear Eleanor has moved back to England but appeared in some of our Christmas virtual choir videos.)

Our prelude is a setting of Repton by Martin Hotton (b. 1946), organist and choirmaster at All Saints’ Pavement, the medieval 14th century guild church of York, England. This setting sets out the tune in a solo flute over strings, with a counter melody of staccato notes that reminds me of “drop they still dews of quietness” part of the poem.

Our other traditionally sung hymn about the calling of the disciples is They Cast their Nets in Galilee (Hymnal #661) to the tune Georgetown by David McKinley Williams (1887-1978). Such a sad and serious hymn has always been a favorite of our children’s choirs, who somehow recognize its profundity.

Williams was born in Wales, and began his career in church music as a chorister in the choir of the Cathedral of St. John, Denver. In 1908 David McKinley Williams went to New York to serve as the organist of Grace Church Chapel. He moved to Paris in 1911 for study with some of the best known French organists of the time. He served in the Royal Canadian Artillery in World War I and returned to his New York position in 1920. After only six months, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York where he served until his retirement in 1947. There he developed one of the most outstanding music programs in the USA and also headed the organ department of the Juilliard School of Music while serving on the faculty of the School of Sacred Music, Union Theological Seminary. He also served as a member of the Joint Commission on Church Music and the Joint Commission on the Revision of the Hymnal that produced The Hymnal (1940). His other hymn tunes in The Hymnal 1982 include Malabar: Strengthen for Service (Hymn 312), Canticum refectionis: This is the hour of banquet and of song (Hymn 316).

The text is by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) a lawyer, planter, and poet from Greenville, Mississippi. You can read more about Percy’s fascinating life here, including his French-catholic mother, senator father, friendships with William Faulkner and Langston Hughes and his influence on the Episcopal university, Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Many years ago, I asked Mother Vicki McGrath (All Saint’s Milligton-her husband and daughter grew up in the Grace Choirs) to write us another verse about the calling of some women disciples, which we always include:

Martha and Mary were Jesus’ friends

They served their Lord and guest

With faith and spices to his tomb

They came when hope had passed.

Our postlude is In dir ist Freude (In Thee is Gladness) from J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). It is traditionally (liturgically) played for the New Year, but many of us feel like the new year of 2021 just started on January 20. It has a joyful repeated leaping pedal figure and ascending and descending scales in the hands that sound like the pealing of many bells. My friend Chris also played it as the postlude at our wedding.

In children’s choir in January we often sing the Star-Spangled Banner, and Lady Gaga’s performance at the inauguration gave us a chance to talk about meter (3/4 time in the hymnal –something more complicated in her arrangement). It was fun to play the video and discuss her performance.

I was especially happy that my 6th grade girls then wanted to go on and discuss Amanda Gorman’s poem, which they had discussed in English and social studies but wanted to hear again. I am grateful for time to do things like this with the choristers.

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