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Sunday Music Musings January 21, 2023

January 21, 2023

German early Romantic period composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) is one of my favorites—not only is his music gorgeous, but he was hard-working, a good husband and brother, and not crazy!

He was a musical prodigy, debuting in Berlin at just 9 years old. In 1819, he joined the Singakademie and began composing and conducting. In 1826, Mendelssohn produced one of his best known works, Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1829, he conducted a revival performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a masterwork which might otherwise have been forgotten. This led to a chance to conduct in England and Scotland which inspired his third symphony known as the Scottish Symphony. In 1835 Mendelssohn became conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and then he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music.  In 1836 Mendelssohn met 16 year old Cécile Jeanrenaud, a clergyman’s daughter, whom he married in 1837; they had five children over the course of their marriage. The same year that he married, Mendelssohn composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. Other famous works followed: Violin Concerto in E Minor (completed 1844), and in 1846 he presented his newly written oratorio Elijah at the Birmingham Festival. Mendelssohn was only 38 when he died, following the death of his beloved sister Fanny the same year.

Sunday I will play movements from two different organs Sonatas. Mendelssohn’s Six Organ Sonatas, Opus 65, were published in 1845. Mendelssohn was a skilled organist, and during his visits to Britain gave a number of well-received organ recitals including the works of Bach and improvisations. The Adagio I will play before communion is from the first Sonata, and I will use a back-and-forth dialogue between the organ in the front and the gallery stops in the back. The Postlude is from Sonata VI, the first movement of which is a set of variations on the tune “Vater unser” (Our Father). The fugue subject is derived from this tune.

One of our most beloved choir anthem is the offertory Verleih uns Frieden (1839). In most of Mendelssohn’s cantatas he used a chorale tune as theme, so it is unusual that this does not, but instead, the “little song” (as Mendelssohn referred to it) was originally conceived as a “canon with cello and basses” which yielded a lyrical melody reminiscent of Gregorian chant, and simple but exquisite counterpoint.  Robert Schuman wrote of this piece “A singularly lovely composition; simply looking at the score will hardly give an impression of its actual effect.  The little piece is worthy of being world-famous…Madonnas by Raphael and Murillo cannot remain hidden very long.”  The words by Martin Luther are those used at the close of every worship service in Luther’s time, from the Latin Da pacem Domine.

In other music, The prelude is based on the communion hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind which contains one of my favorite lines of all time “reclothe us in our rightful mind.” I often feel the need to pray those words! The pairing of this text by the American Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) with the beautiful tune REPTON by England’s most beloved Victorian composer C.H.H.Parry (1848-1918) has actually made this into one of England’s most beloved hymns.

The Song of Praise is Hymn #661 sung by the School Choirs: They Cast their Nets in Galilee to the tune GEORGETOWN by David McKinley Williams (1887-1978). Such a sad and serious hymn has always been a favorite of our children’s choirs, who somehow recognize its profundity.

During the pandemic I wrote lots and lots more details about these two hymns, please have a look here.  You can see the words to the “extra verse” about some women disciples, Martha and Mary, which was written for me by Mother Vicki McGrath, and will be sung Sunday by head chorister sisters Elisabeth and Henri Wielandy.

Three more hymns round out a full morning of music. Our first hymn, The People who in darkness walked is of course a paraphrase of Isaiah 9:2-7, versified by Scottish minister John Morison (1949-1798), and set to the tune DUNDEE from a Scottish Psalter of 1615. As I always say, tunes are often named for places, this one is Scotland.

The Presentation hymn How Wondrous and Great is to the tune LYONS by Austrian composer Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806), younger brother of more famous Franz Joseph Haydn. The choir on Thursday remarked on the unusual name of the author: Henry Ustick Onderdonk (1759-1858). Onderdonk was born in New York, educated as a medical doctor, later studied theology under Bishop Hobart; ordained in 1815. He was rector of St. Ann’s, Brooklyn, until 1827 when he was elected bishop coadjutor of Pennsylvania, becoming bishop in 1836 upon the death of Bishop White. The text is a paraphrase of Revelations 15, The Song of the Redeemed.

The choir knows everything is “my favorite!” But truly, the last hymn 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 I am pretty sure it was the second hymn I learned—because I wanted to! 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 tune 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 Massachusetts poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). 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 “hy 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.

Then music in our services connects us to so many countries, eras, and scriptures I think it is fun to dive deep. Thanks for reading!


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