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Sunday Music Musings January 31, 2021

January 31, 2021

The readings over the next few Sundays are about healing, which is a good topic right now. According to Wikipedia, There Is A Balm in Gilead is a traditional African-American spiritual dating back at least to the 19th century. A version of the refrain can be found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure”. There is an allusion to the song in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven (1845). The spiritual longs for healing, both physical, and spiritual. The second verse includes references to both Peter and Paul, whose saints days we just celebrated in January. Sunday’s prelude is a setting by Richard Billingham (b. 1934), who worked for many years as Associate Professor of Music at the University of Illinois and Organist at the First Methodist Church, Chicago. He has set many spirituals, both chorally and for organ. This is a straightforward if jazz-chordy setting.

With my wonderful cantor, I have programmed some hymns that are less familiar, and From Thee All Skill and Science Flow, Hymn # 566 is one. My adult choir sang through this at our Thursday night meeting, and particularly noted the reference to science! It seems a good week to celebrate science and God, NOT being mutually exclusive, as Dr. Fauci celebrates his unmuting.  “Fauci, NIH’s senior infectious disease specialist, has said he isn’t active in organized religion but credited his Jesuit schooling with burnishing the values that drive his public service.” (US News and World report May 2020-“For Top U.S. Virus Experts, Faith and Science Work Together.”)

The text is by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), Anglican priest, university professor, social reformer, historian, novelist and poet. He graduated a first class in classics from Magdalene Coll. Cambridge, later serving as Rector of Eversley 1814-1875; Canon of Chester 1869-1873; and Canon of Westminster 1873-1875. He is particularly associated with Christian socialism, the working men’s college, and labor reforms. Following the themes of healing and science, he was a friend of Charles Darwin’s, and receptive to the idea of evolution. He also wrote a hymn for the laying of the foundation stone of the working men’s block of the Queen’s Hospital at Birmingham.

J. T. White composed THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION in 1844 for The Sacred Harp, edited by B. F. White and E. J. King. The melody was originally in the tenor and set to shape notes. The jaunty tune with its strong downbeats makes me want to chop wood or something! Benjamin Franklin White (1800 –-1879) was a shape note “singing master” and journalist. J.T. White seems to have no information about him, although one source attributes the sacred harp song “The Promised Land” to him, which we now know to be by Miss M. Durham—perhaps J.T. is either a nome de plume for Miss Durham or B. F. White himself (I’m speculating).

shape notes aided in sight singing these early American hymns on solfege syllables

For the postlude I am going to play J. S. Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor to try to banish the winter doldrums. To me this is almost a perfect piece. Not long, but so exciting, with its upward leaping 5th setting the subject, and the driving eighth notes of the counter-subject; the major key iteration in the middle and long sequences between statements. It was composed during Bach’s time in Arnstadt (1703–1707). YouTube really has some amazing offering and here is a mesmerizing video with a graphic representation of what is going on.

When organists refer to this piece as the “Little,” it is just to differentiate it from Bach’s other, longer fugue in G minor, BWV 542, the “Great.” You can find a graphic representation for the “Great” on YouTube as well. There is also an orchestral version by Leopold Stokowski.

Coming up on Tuesday is Candlemas, so I will play/sing a little music from home on our 8:30 a.m. Morning Prayer zoom. Join us if you can (find the zoom room by cliking “Daily Prayer” on the Grace Church website). Ask your choir kid to tell you about the Nunc dimittis, because we’ve been talking about it a lot, since the choristers are doing a virtual recording of the chant S-253 for an upcoming virtual Evensong. They can tell you that this service of light celebrates the Song of Simeon, or the Nunc Dimittis, that is, the epiphany that the old priest Simeon had when he saw the infant Jesus, whom God had promised to show him before he died.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Traditionally candles are blessed and lit in celebration of Jesus being the light of the world. In AD 638, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, proclaimed the importance of the celebration in his sermon to the church, stating: “Our bright shining candles are a sign of divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”  

The timing for Candlemas is also in accordance with the Mosaic Law, which required that a woman should purify herself for forty days after giving birth, and, at the end of her purification, should present herself to the priest at the temple and offer a sacrifice (Leviticus 12:6-7). In the Roman Catholic Church this is known as the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, while in English Anglican Churches women gather with feasting and socializing known as The Wives’ Feast.

Candlemas IS related to Groundhog Day as evidenced in this old rhyme;

            If Candelmas day be fair and bright

            Winter will take another flight.

            If Candlemas Day be cloud and rain

            Winter is gone and will not come again.

Also traditionally, Dr. Anne (and I believe Father Asa) leaves her Christmas lights up through Candlemas!

The Presentation in the Temple (Candlemas)

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