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Sunday Music Musings February 6, 2021

February 6, 2021

In my search to increase the number of women composers of organ music in my repertoire, I recently ordered a volume by Canadian composer Rachel Laurin (b. 1961). After studying at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, from 1986 to 2002, she was assistant organist at Saint Joseph’s Oratory. In 1988, she started teaching at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal. From 2002 to 2006, she was titular organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Ottawa. She now devotes her time to composition, recitals, master classes and lectures. In 2008, she received the Holtkamp-AGO Composition Award. In 2009, she was awarded first place in the Marilyn Mason New Organ Music Competition.

Prologue is a coloristic and tuneful work, and the easiest one in this volume 4 of several volumes of “A Dozen Short Pieces” all on commissions. Some of the works use liturgical tunes and some are programmatic and impressionistic.

Rachel Laurin, composer/organist

Our hymn tune of the day has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I began organ in the 8th grade. Although it is relatively hard for a brand new organist (F minor, triplet, lots of pedal), I am pretty sure it was the second hymn I learned—because I wanted to! (St. Anne was the first—what was yours?) When I ask the choristers “what country is this tune from?” they often just shout out “Wales” because there are so many good tunes! This is known as Ton-y-botel, or Ebenezer in some of the 212 hymnals in which it appears. Another clue to its Welsh heritage is the name of the composer, Thomas John Williams (1869-1944). Williams was in the insurance business (like Charles Ives!) but studied with David Evans at Cardiff and later was organist and choirmaster at Zion Chapel (1903­-1913) and Calfaria Chapel (1913-1931), both in Llanelly, in southeast Wales. Ton-y-botel means “tune in a bottle” from a legend that it was found on a Welsh beach in a bottle.

At the time I learned this hymn from the 1940 hymnal, it was to the words “Once to Every Man and Nation,” by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). Lowell was from Cambridge MA, a Harvard graduate, lawyer, diplomat, editor and poet. The stirring text was a favorite of many a romantic among us, but did not make it into the 1982 hymnal on theological grounds. “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/In the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side.” But no. Lucky for us God’s grace and forgiveness is extended more than once a lifetime. (Lucky for nations too!)

But lucky for hymn lovers we find this tune set to two texts in the 1982 hymnal, #527 “Singing Songs of Expectation” and today’s hymn #381 “Thy Strong Word did Cleave the Darkness.” Both of these strong texts stand up to the strong tune. Author Martin H. Franzmann (1907-1976) was an American Lutheran clergyman, theologian and author who wrote and translated numerous hymns. Originally from Minnesota, he began his career teaching at Northwestern, and ended it at Westfield House, the theological college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, in Cambridge, England. The extended imagery of light, and God’s word as a beacon in the darkness, makes it a great Epiphany hymn.

The postlude by Healey Willan (1880-1968) is a wonderful, tortured, late romantic, fugal approach to this tune. (I am sure he was picturing Lowell’s text.) Neo-romantic, stylistically conservative Healey Willan is best known for his liturgical music, though his output of more than 800 works includes opera, symphony, chamber, organ, piano, band, incidental scores, song, folksong arrangements, and much more. Over half of his works are Anglican church music. Born in England, he migrated to Canada and there became probably the most influential composer of liturgical music of his time. His influence spread across North America, spilling over into the musical traditions of most major denominations. Those of us familiar with the Episcopal church of the 1940 hymnal, or Rite One services, are very familiar with his service music. If you have time, watch this amazing resource, A 1966 Canadian TV program “Telescope” with Fletcher Markle interviewing the 86-year old composer. Enjoy!

Our anthem is O Christ the Healer We Have Come, set by Richard Gieseke (b.1952). Now enjoying retirement in Missouri, Gieseke served in many Lutheran parishes and also had calls to Concordia Publishing House, Lutheran Hour Ministries, LCMS Foundation, and Lutheran Blind Mission. He studied at Concordia Teachers College with Dr. Carl Schalk and Dr. Richard Hillert.

I can’t believe I got his far in blogging without writing about Fred Pratt Green CBE (1903-2000) – one of the best-known of contemporary hymn writers. A puts it: “his name and writings appear in practically every new hymnal and ‘hymn supplement’ wherever English is spoken and sung.” Mr. Green was born in Liverpool, England, and ordained in the British Methodist ministry. You can find the full text here.

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