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Sunday Music Musings July 10, 2021

July 11, 2021

Very few hymns have a more famous story than Amazing Grace, written by repentant enslaver John Newton (1735-1807). Newton was born in 1725 in London to a Puritan mother who died before his seventh birthday, and a stern sea-captain father who took him to sea at age 11. After many voyages and a reckless youth of drinking, Newton was impressed into the British navy, and ended up in the slave trade. The story goes that during a horrendous storm at sea, he prayed for deliverance, was delivered, repented and changed his life. According to this cool website

“In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns to accompany his services. He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772 (In 1835, William Walker put the words to the popular tune “New Britain”)…“It was not until 1788, 34 years after leaving it that he renounced his former slaving profession by publishing a blazing pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” The tract described the horrific conditions on the ships and Newton apologized for making a public statement so many years after participating in the trade: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” The pamphlet was so popular it was reprinted several times and sent to every member of Parliament. Under the leadership of MP William Wilberforce, the English civil government outlawed slavery in Great Britain in 1807 and Newton lived to see it, dying in December of that year.”

The fifth verse is credited not to Newton, but to John Rees (1828-1900), yet it antedates his birth—according to some sources, it was was in print by 1790 attached to “Jerusalem, my happy home.” Harriet Beecher Stowe quotes it in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The tune, NEW BRITAIN, is a shape-note setting from Virginia Harmony (1831).

I hope you enjoy our jazz-infused setting by George Shearing (1919-2011) which is the prelude. Born blind to a poor London family, Shearing trained as a classical pianist but turned to jazz. He played dance-band gigs before settling in the United States in 1946. His quintet, first formed in 1949, lasted for many years and won a huge following for its many albums. He later worked extensively with Mel Tormé. He enjoyed an international reputation as a pianist, arranger and composer. Shearing was recognized for his inventive, orchestrated jazz. He wrote over 300 compositions, including the classic Lullaby of Birdland, which became a standard. Here is a performance by Shearing, and below is a performance (5:24) by the 2014 Daughters of Zion performing a (nearly) a cappella arrangement of Lullaby of Birdland with Devin McGuire, bass.

From his obituary: “Mr. Shearing was invited to perform at the White House by three presidents: Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He performed for the British royal family as well. The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters gave him the Ivor Novello Award for lifetime achievement in 1993. In 1996, he was invested as an officer in the Order of the British Empire, and 11 years later he was knighted. “I don’t know why I’m getting this honor,” he said shortly after learning of his knighthood. “I’ve just been doing what I love to do.”

This week’s gospel is definitely a hard one to actually find music for, since it is about the beheading of John the Baptist. But suddenly I was reminded (by him) that my husband has written verse paraphrases for the whole Gospel of Mark. These are intended to be set to music, and this one is in long meter (LM) – so you can set it to any hymn tune in that meter (there is even a convenient metrical index in the back of the hymnal for when you want to mix tunes around). Grace and I decided to pick the appropriately plaintive tune BOURBON, a southern folk tune attributed to Freeman Lewis (1780-1859), a Pennsylvania surveyor.

When Herod took his brother’s bride,
John Baptist cursed their sinful pride.
The king would have him killed for this,
But feared to, for John’s righteousness.

So then came Herod’s birthday feast,
Where food and drink were all the best.
And there the daughter of his bride
Danced, to enflame his lust and pride.

Therefore he promised to give her
Whatever she should ask him for;
And she, to please her mother, said
“Give us John Baptist, just the head.”

So this was on a platter brought,
The thing the vicious girl had sought:
John’s mournful followers then came
And laid his body in a tomb.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of “The Song of Mark:  A Poetic Gospel,” by Jabez L. Van Cleef (b.1949)  

Our communion anthem, Andrew’s Song is by Sarah MacDonald (b.1968), using a tune by John Penny. Her impressive bio is as follows:

Sarah MacDonald came to the UK from her native Canada in 1992 as Organ Scholar of Robinson College, Cambridge, after studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto with Leon Fleisher, Marek Jablonski, and John Tuttle. At Cambridge she studied the organ with David Sanger. She has been at Selwyn since 1999, and is the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge Chapel. Sarah has played numerous recitals and made over 25 recordings, variously in the guises of pianist, organist, conductor, and producer; she is a winner of the Royal College of Organists (RCO) Limpus Prize. Sarah has taught organ and conducting for Eton Choral Courses, Oundle for Organists, the Jennifer Bate Organ Academy, and courses run by the RCO, and she is a regular Director of the annual Girls’ Chorister Course at St Thomas’ Church Fifth Avenue, in New York City. Sarah is a Fellow, Examiner, and Trustee of the RCO, and is a member of the Academic Board. She is also Director of Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir.

I have enjoyed watching evensongs from Selwyn throughout the pandemic. Sarah has been ground-breaking but it is high time girl’s choirs and women organists get more respect and parity in this field, especially among Anglicans.

This anthem also sets one of my favorite texts by George Herbert (1593–1633), Welsh-born metaphysical poet, orator, and priest, Love Bade Me Welcome (also famously set by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs). These are love poems which function allegorically as a relationship between God or Christ as Love, and the believer as the beloved. You can find the full poem here.

The postlude is J. S. Bach’s (1685-1750) reworking of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concerto in A minor (first movement-Allegro) from a string orchestra piece to an organ piece. This is really a “concerto grosso”: a form of baroque music in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists and full orchestra. In the original string version, the small group is two violins and continuo. In Bach’s organ version, the player switches between full organ on the main manual (the “great”) and in my case, the gallery organ from the back serves as the smaller ensemble. It is exciting and fun to play!

And speaking of fun to play, my lady bell choir had a closing ceremony today, where we played a mini concert of 6 hymn arrangements from the porch for a small audience of family and friends, followed by snacks and fellowship. It was a perfect day for outdoor bells with no leaf blowers, partly cloudy and no sudden gusts of wind!

The audience assembles! The garden looks so great.

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