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Sunday Music Musings March 13, 2021

March 14, 2021

Mid-Lent Sunday (Laetare Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Rose Sunday) is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and marks a “lightening up” and thereafter a reaffirmation of Lenten disciplines.  “Mothering Sunday” goes back to the pagan festival held on the Ides of March (March 15) in honor of Cybele, mother of the gods. The Christians took this pagan festival, and turned it into a day on which offerings were brought to the “Mother Church” instead.  Traditionally children living away from home returned to visit their parents, and servants were given a day off so they could do the same. They brought gifts for their mothers, typically flowers and a SIMNEL CAKE. Our offertory carol “White Lent” is set to the tune of a French carol “Quittez pasteurs.” The words are attributed to Percy Deamer (1867-1936),  English priest and liturgist, but are posssibly older, as collected by him for the Hymnal 1906 for which he was an editor.

Signs of spring at church Mid-Lent

Our prelude is a Little Chaconne on a Lenten Hymn, that is, a set of short variations over a repeated bass line (similar to a passacaglia). The hymn in question is the Lutheran chorale “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN). The composer James Edward Engel (1925-1989) was born into a large family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He worked hard to raise the standards of 20th century Lutheran church music, and taught at Luther College.

As we have been doing a different Kyrie every week, this week I picked Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Kyrie (HYMNAL S-96) from the Deutsche Messe — for its cheerfulness! In our church we are much more familiar with his Sanctus S-130. You can hear the whole mass with orchestra here (much slower than we will ever sing at church).

Schubert is of course known for his amazing songs (Lieder). In his short life he wrote over 6oo of these, setting some of Germany’s greatest poets, and granting the piano and equal partnership in explicating the poems. I can’t help posting this video by my son-in-law the amazing German baritone and Schubert expert Johannes Held. Frühlingstraum, (Spring Dream) from Winterreise, Op. 89, D. 911: No. 11.

Our hymn is an old favorite, My Faith Looks up to Thee, to the tune Olivet by American music educator Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872). The author, Ray Palmer (b. Little Compton, RI, 1808; d. Newark, NJ, 1887) is often considered to be one of America’s best nineteenth-century hymn writers. After completing grammar school he worked in a Boston dry goods store, but a religious awakening prodded him to study for the ministry. He attended Yale College and was ordained in 1835, going on to pastor Congregational churches in Bath, Maine (1835-1850), and Albany, New York (1850-1865). He wrote these words while employed as a teacher at a private girls’ school in New York. He had experienced a difficult year of illness and loneliness and was inspired to write this verse one night after meditating on a German poem that depicted a sinner kneeling before the cross of Christ. Two years later he showed them to composer Lowell Mason in Boston. Mason’s prophecy that Palmer “will be best known to posterity as the author of ‘My Faith Looks Up to Thee’ ” has certainly come true. (

The postlude is one of Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, BWV 553-560, a collection of works formerly attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, now believed to have been composed by one of Bach’s pupils, possibly Krebs or or the Bohemian composer Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer. BWV 555 in E minor has a stately prelude with a long string of suspensions, followed by well-crafted fugue with chromatics, inversions and stretto. This is one of my favorite pieces ever, probably because it is one of the first pieces I ever learned. You can tell how long ago I learned it, by looking at this music, which looks as old as Bach.

Looks as old as Bach–only as old as me

I am happily exhausted, because this afternoon I met my brass quartet and percussionist and made live music! Spread around the empty chancel we recorded Easter hymns and anthems over which the choir will virtually sing. It was a great feeling.

Socially distanced live music making (the trumpet & trombone front right are married)

Happy Spring! The only bad news is losing an hour of sleep tonight!

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