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Sunday Music Musings October 22, 2022

October 22, 2022

The prelude is a short set of Variations on ‘Nettleton‘ by Undine Smith Moore (1904 –1989). Known to some as the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” Undine Smith Moore‘s career in composition began while she was at Fisk. While her range of compositions includes works for piano and for other instrumental groups, Moore is more widely known for her choral works. Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, a 16-part oratorio on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for chorus, orchestra, solo voices and narrator was premiered at Carnegie Hall and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Undine Smith Moore

This prepares us for our processional hymn, the very popular but anonymous tune NETTLETON with the words Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson (1735 –1790). Robinson was an English Dissenter, influential Baptist and scholar who made a lifelong study of the antiquity and history of Christian Baptism. He wrote the hymn at age 22 after converting to Methodism (on his way to becoming a Baptist!). I do miss the text “Here I raise my Ebeneezer” in our more modern translation of verse 2.

The Song of Praise is a new setting of the Canticle of the Earth O Ye Badgers and Hedgehogs Bless the Lord which you may have heard on St. Francis Day, and I wrote about extensively on Oct. 2 HERE. The choristers will also sing this in our Halloween Concert next Saturday!

Singing about Badgers and Hedgehogs on St. Francis Day, as Mother Susan’s dog looks on

Then in place of the psalm, our older trebles (“School Choir II”) will sing a lovely English Baroque duet, Thou Visitest the Earth by Maurice Greene (1696 – 1755). Born in London, the son of a clergyman, Greene’s career began as a choirboy at St Paul’s Cathedral where he later became organist, and is buried.  Greene later served as organist at the Chapel Royal, and Professor of Music at Cambridge University. The old-fashioned language from Psalm 65 is quiet a tongue-twister for our singers!

“Thou visitest the earth and blesses it. Thou crownest the year with thy goodness.”

No anthem can replace The Pharisee and the Publican for me when this reading comes up. The great German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) has made a dramatic depiction of the full-of-himself, holier-than-thou Pharisee (bass solo, depicted by Jabez, who does throw himself into it although he is a pretty humble guy) contrasted with the humble, penitent tax collector, sung by our new tenor, Paul. Heinrich Schütz bridged the generation from the Renaissance to the Baroque. He was no stranger to death and hardship as a widower whose creative output spanned the Thirty Years’ War. His works range from huge double and triple choir pieces to small church choir pieces like this (imagine what 30 years of war would do to your choir!). It is from the collection Symphoniarum sacrarum tertia pars, op. 12, otherwise known as “Symphoniae Sacrae”, published in Dresden in 1650. This dialogue is introduce by a soprano/alto duet narration, and at the end the choir responds with the moral of the story: those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted (at which point the altos get to sing HIGHER than the sopranos—one of my favorite “in” jokes in all of music history!)

HYMN #314 is one of my favorite communion hymns, and one of the oldest tunes in our hymnal, based as it is on the chant ADORO DEVOTE to words by Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), the Italian Dominican friar, priest, philosopher and theologian. The text addresses the hidden mystery of God, and how we humbly long to understand and experience it. It has been a long pandemic when I realize that we have not sung this hymn in three years. This time last year we were still only singing 1 congregational hymn! No matter what absences happen I rejoice that we are singing so much again! Before we sing it I will play an organ setting by Gerald Near (b. 1942), a Catholic composer who has a whole set of Gregorian Chant preludes. You can read more about this composer HERE.

The gorgeous tune MICHAEL by Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983) has a sad story behind it. In September 1935 Howells’ nine-year-old son Michael contracted polio during a family holiday, dying in London three days later. At the suggestion of his daughter Ursula he sought to channel his grief into music, and over the next three years composed much of Hymnus Paradisi (a requiem), the Concerto for Strings, the slow movement of which is in joint memory of Michael and Edward Elgar, and the unfinished Cello Concerto, which Howells had been working on at the time of his son’s death and which he found himself unable to complete. A Sequence for St. Michael and the motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing have also been associated with Howells’s grief for Michael, as have two of Howells’s hymn tunes, the best-known of which is this hymn “All My Hope on God is Founded” and the tune Twigworth for the hymn “God is love, let heaven adore him”.

Here is some more about this wonderful composer whose birthday was this week, including a connection to Vaughan Williams, our composer of the year!:

As a young organist, Herbert Howells heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in 1910, who made the acquaintance of the yet little known composer. Howells studied at the Royal College of Music with C.V. Stanford, C.H.H. Parry and Charles Wood, three of the “greats” of English music at the time. In 1915 Howells was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease and given six months to live, but survived when he became the first person in the country to receive radium treatment. Friends then arranged for a grant for Howells to assist R.R.Terry in editing the Tudor repertoire that he was reviving at Westminster Cathedral. Howells took great interest in this work, absorbing the English Renaissance style. He joined the faculty of the RCM in 1920. During World War II, he served as acting organist of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Howells began his career with orchestral works, but after his second piano concerto received a hostile reception, he stopped composing for a bit. After the tragic death of his son Michael at age 9, he found a new creative outpouring in choral and church music, although like Vaughan Williams, he was not an orthodox Christian. He was commissioned to write a series of service settings tailored for the specific buildings of King’s College, Cambridge (the Collegium Regale), St. John’s College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester, St. Paul’s, and Gloucester cathedrals, among others.

Herbert Howells

The stirring words for this hymn are by English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930), after Joachim Neander (1650-1680).

The postlude is a trumpet-tune setting of MICHAEL by the prolific Michael Burkhardt (b.1957), choral clinician, organ recitalist, and hymn festival leader, who is currently Director of Worship and the Arts at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Livonia, Michigan.

I hope to see you at our Halloween concert for all ages on Saturday!


From → church music

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