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Ascension Music Musings May 20, 2023

May 20, 2023

This Sunday we celebrate the Ascension with lots of music.

As usual, I need to credit the with this write up of our tune of the day: IN BABILONE is from Oude en Nieuwe Hollantse Boerenlieties en Contredansen (Old and New Dutch Peasant Songs and Country Dances), a collection of over a thousand tunes, dances, and marches of Dutch, French, and English origin. The tune name derives from the incipit of a Dutch ballad drawn from the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon, which opens “In Babylon, with lack of wisdom, men worshiped Bel (Baal) the silent idol.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams discovered an arrangement of this tune by Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) and included it in The English Hymnal (1906), from which it gained widespread use. An important Dutch pianist, composer, conductor, scholar, and editor, Röntgen studied music in Leipzig and later he moved to Amsterdam, where he taught at the Amsterdam Conservatory and in 1886 he became conductor of the Society for the Advancement of Musical Art. He returned to the Conservatory as director in 1918, and then retired in 1924 to devote himself to composition. He was a friend of leading composers of his day, including Liszt, Brahms, and Grieg, and wrote a biography of Grieg.

The hymn is used for Hail thou once despised Jesus, and also for the Ascension words today: See the Conqueror mounts in triumph, written by Greek scholar Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885). Wordsworth was the nephew of the great lake-poet, William Wordsworth. He was educated at Winchester, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with high honors, in 1830; M.A. in 1833; D.D. in 1839. He was elected Fellow of his College in 1830, and public orator of the University in 1836; received Priest’s Orders in 1835; head master of Harrow School in 1836; Canon of Westminster Abbey in 1844; Hulsean Lecturer at Cambridge in 1847-48; Vicar of Stanford-in-the-Vale, Berks, in 1850; Archdeacon of Westminster, in 1865; Bishop of Lincoln, in 1868. He wrote lots of prose and also a publication of 127 hymns in 1862.

The prelude is based on this tune by Lutheran organist/composer Michael Burkhardt (b.1957). I play many of his settings based on the hymn tunes we use liturgically. You can find his full bio here.

For the Song of Praise we will all sing Canticle 13, Benedictus es Domine, a setting by beloved English composer John Rutter CBE (b. 1945). I always have the kids count how many times we say “Glory to You” (12 if you count the descant) and work on their round vowels.

The choir is continuing our practice of Anglican chant psalms, (Psalm 68 to a tune by Victorian John Goss (1800-1880)) so we can prepare for our trip to Wells Cathedral July 27-August 5, 2024. The choir will be getting a direct mailing about this within the week with full details. If you would like to know more as well, reach out to me and/or come to a short information meeting after Choir Recognition Sunday on June 11.

Our offertory anthem is a nice big one, since I am enjoying the fact that the Sunday after Ascension is NOT memorial weekend this year, and choir attendance should be decent. So in honor of you-know-who “and pronounce his name correctly” Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). we will be singing O Clap Your Hands. He composed this setting of verses from Psalm 47 in 1920 for a six-part choir, organ, brass, and percussion. He later also made versions for orchestra and for organ (which is what we will do—making liberal use of a loud trumpet stop!).

The communion hymn is MIDDLEBURY, a tune from The Sacred Harp (1835), harmonized by our friend Jack Burnam (b.1946) who you can read about here. This gives the choristers a chance to ring bells and sing one last Easter hymn, although I associate this Charles Wesley (1707-1788) text with Ascension. The organ setting is by blind jazz great George Shearing (1919-2011).

Our last hymn is CORONATION which is a grand tune by New Englander Oliver Holden (1765-1844). The text by British Edward Perronet (1726-1792) uses lots of the imagery of the monarchy to describe Jesus’ Ascension to the “throne of God.” For those who prefer a more down-to-earth explanation for the Ascension, think of it as Jesus going to “work from home.”

Finally the postlude is a setting of a triumphant tune from the G. F. Handel (1685-1750) opera Judas Maccabeus. The Easter text, Thine is the Glory is not in our Hymnal 1982 but is in many others. However we at Grace know it better for its Advent text “Daughter of Zion”—the theme song for our teen SSA group. The composer is Emily Maxton Porter (b.1942) pupil of the great Paul Manz, former organist at St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Fridley, Minnesota, following positions as Organist and Children’s Choir Director at several churches in the Milwaukee area, in Toledo, and in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. She was also Professor of Theory and Organ at Lynchburg College, in Virginia, and Asst. Professor of Organ and Theory at Concordia College in St. Paul.

Time to take my Easter decorations down!


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