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Sunday Music Musings March 18, 2023

March 18, 2023

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. Appropriate for this St. Patrick’s weekend, it was the shores of Ireland where the survivors washed up and where Newton’s spiritual conversion began. Although he didn’t instantly change his ways and was still involved in the slave trade for six more years, it is believed that he began reading the Bible in Ireland and ‘started to view his captives with a more sympathetic view.’

 In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest, and began writing hymns to accompany his services. He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772. Finally in 1788, he renounced his former slaving profession by publishing a blazing pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” which described the horrific conditions on the ships. 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 hymn grew in popularity in the United State in the 19th century to several tunes, and In 1835, William Walker put the words to the popular tune NEW BRITAIN.

The prelude is a jazz-infused setting by George Shearing (1919-2011). 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.

Valerie Webdell is a Lutheran Christian Education professional from Indiana, and ahe has written this lovely two-part children’s anthem Children of Light, based on our reading from Ephesians: “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”

Our setting of the psalm is Isaac Watts’ metric paraphrase of Psalm 23, My Shepherd will Supply My Need, to the Southern Harmony Tune RESIGNATION as set by Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English Congregational minister, hymn writer, theologian, and logician is credited with some 750 hymns including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Joy to the World”, and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

Virgil Thomson studied at Harvard, then in Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. Among his most famous works are the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (with Gertrude Stein), and film scores to The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River, and Louisiana Story. This simple arrangement is a fine example of Thomson’s musical style rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony, and influenced by Satie’s ideals of clarity, and simplicity.

There is a 9/11 story for this piece. A few days after those terrible events, the town of Madison held a memorial on the steps of Hartley-Dodge, and we joined with the church choirs from St. Vincent’s and the Presbyterian Church to sing this. It turns out it was pouring rain, and when it can time to sing together on the steps, we just all put down our umbrellas and went for it. Of course the music itself got soaking wet. I was all ready to throw it away but one of the altos (Dorothy Hayes) took the music home and dried it and ironed it! Now when I a copy that is slightly wrinkled I remember all of that.

Our offertory is by William Grant Still (1895 –1978) long known as the “Dean of African-American Classical Composers.”  Still was a prolific composer whose works include five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, over thirty choral works, plus art songs, chamber music and works for solo instruments. He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 “Afro-American” (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. He set this spiritual The Blind Man simply and passionately for tenor soloist and choir.

If today’s tenor solo seems a new yet familiar face in the choir, it is Greg Paradis, who was our Gargoyles director about 10 years ago, and has returned to sing with the adults. Greg is happy to be back and would love to meet you. He is passionate about theater and baking!

The fourth Sunday in Lent is Mid-lent, or Laetare Sunday (from the introit “Laetare Jerusalem” (Rejoice, Jerusalem). In England it was also Mothering Sunday (a day off to visit your mother if you were in service) or Refreshment Sunday as the fasting rules during Lent were relaxed, to honor the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Sometimes the color is rose as in Advent on Gaudete Sunday. Our Presentation hymn celebrates this more cheerful moment in Lent: “Now Quit your care, and anxious fear and worry…” a text by the very British Percy Dearmer (1867–1936) (the author of The Parson’s Handbook and the editor of The English hymnal who had invited Vaughan Williams to be musical editor). It is set to a French Carol QUITTEZ PASTEURS which at Christmas time calls to the shepherds to get up and go to Bethlehem.

At communion I will refer back to RESIGNATION with an organ setting by the prolific Charles Callahan (b. 1951), and then more “light” for the communion hymn: Eternal Light, words by British hymnodist Christopher Idle (b. 1938) after a text by Alcuin (735?-804). Alcuin of York was a scholar, clergyman, poet, and teacher from York, who was invited by Charlemagne to become the leading scholar and teacher at his court (for which he is much more famous than for his hymnody). The tune is an old German chorale attributed to Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), ACH BLEIB BEI UNS. It always amazes me how many centuries can be pulled together in the music of one hymn.

As we end singing Amazing Grace, the postlude will also reflect on that hymn, in a setting by Hal Hopson (b.1933) a Texas-based prolific church musician and composer with over 3000 works.

This week I’ve been reflecting a lot on the anniversary of lockdown, and it was a very difficult time for choral musicians. Eternal Light is a hymn that would happen several times a year, but since I havn’t blogged about it, I realize we havn’t sung it in 3 years. This time last year the congregation was only singing the final hymn—we added back multiple hymns on Easter.  I am so happy to be singing again and doing so much music in a Sunday with the choirs as they just get better and better from it. We really need to be together, and also to come together to experience live worship, live music in concerts, and in-person fellowship.

Here is a photo from Saturday night’s wonderfully attended Irish Concert of Chamber Music for Charity which raised over $1600 for America’s Grow A Row!


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