Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ecumenical funeral music

Over the weekend, I went to the funeral of an old friend of my father’s. He was both younger than my dad (by 13 years) and died at an older age (81 vs. 90), so I went to represent my father’s gratitude to someone who’d been very good to him.

The title of the church didn’t make it obvious, but in the pews the hymnals were embossed “First Assembly of God” which made this the first time I’d ever attended an Assembly of God service. (The local AoG church had rented its space in the past to the ACNA, and I’ve seen AoG televangelists on TV, but never actually attended a worship service). The preaching and use of the Bible matched my expectations (and I mean that in positive way).

The hymnal (Sing His Praise,  Gospel Publishing House, 1991), was little used by those attendees (two of us pulled it out), as the church had long since converted to praise band and projection screens. The drums were at the center of the stage, behind a plexiglass shield, for the next day’s performance worship music.

There was no choir, only a pianist. Other than her prelude and postlude, the music consisted of

  • “That Will be Glory,” solo by one of the pastors
  • “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” instrumental trio
  • “It is Well with my Soul” (#112, verses 1,3,4), sung by the congregation. It had the familiar harmony so in the refrain, I was able to do the men’s part in response to the upper (and unison) voices.
  • “How Great Thou Art” (#9, verses 1,3,4), sung by the congregation but interrupted by the pastor to make a point prior to the final verse
The pianist knew what she was doing. The pastor seemed to think changes in tempo made his singing more dramatic, which worked for the solo but not when he was leading 150 voices in singing. This approach to singing the music is undoubtably a local practice that would have been familiar to the many parishioners in attendance; I found it unfamiliar if not slightly confusing. 

It made me think that if you have a service with a large number of visitors — given how rarely non-Christians attend baptisms nowadays, that would mean a wedding or funeral — it's not just the choice of hymns (including tunes and words) that will make a difference on congregational participation. It’s also the style of performance.

Finally, it reinforced my prior prejudices: if you are going to have Christians in the room who are used to singing hymns, three hymns is the minimum and four is better. Those in attendance sang with gusto, and I think would have welcomed more verses if not more hymns.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Singing ancient Easter testimonies

Theologically, Easter is the greatest Christian feast, the culmination of the Christian year. It is also a great opportunity for mission, since it's one of the two Sundays where C&E Anglicans (or Catholics or Lutherans) will darken the church doors.

Thus it's not surprising that most churches schedule good hymns for Easter, as our Anglo-Catholic church did this morning, and at the blended service at daughter's college parish. And of course -- next to Christmas — there is the embarrassment of riches: 18 hymns (some with multiple tunes) in The English Hymnal, 17 hymns (three with multiple tunes) in Hymnal 1940, and 33 hymns (7 with multiple tunes) in Hymnal 1982.

Still, today I was struck that all four of the hymns sung at our Anglo-Catholic church were derived from Latin and Greek texts that trace back to  the pre-Reformation undivided church. I was also struck — not surprisingly given the original sources — the debt we owe to John Mason Neale for being able to sing them today.

Procession: Hail thee festival day! (H40: 86; H82: 175)

We sang all nine verses, alternating (as written) between women and men. It is based on the 6th century Latin text, “Salve festa dies,” by Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (b. 530-600/609), making it one of the oldest hymns in Anglican hymnody.

The texts have been translated multiple times since the 16th century. This version begins with Hymn 624 of The English Hymnal (1906) with the now-familiar tune Salva festa dies by music editor Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Hymnal 1940 Companion credits the H40 version to Hymn 389 of Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition (1931). While SOPEE alternates between the two tunes, the idea of alternating verses between women and men seems to have originated with H40.

Gradual: The Day of Resurrection (H40: 96.1; H82: 210)

We sang three verses to the first tune, the middle verse in harmony; Hymnal 1982 also lists a descant. The 8th century Greek text is by St. John of Damascus.. Our hymnals use the translation by John Mason Neale from his Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862), a text that entered the ECUSA hymnary with its Hymnal 1874. The tune Ellacombe is from an 18th century German Catholic hymnal.

Communion: At the Lamb's high feast we sing (H40: 89; H82: 174)

Although I've sung this before, somehow I never really appreciated it. The Latin text is from the Roman Breviary created for Urban VIII (pope 1623-1644), but can be traced back to the 6th century text “Ad cenam Agni providi.” The 1850 translation is by Robert Campbell.

It is uniquely suited as the Easter communion hymn, and as the first of the four verses explain:
At the Lamb's high feast we sing
praise to our victorious King,
who hath washed us in the tide
flowing from his pierced side;
praise we him, whose love divine
gives his sacred Blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast,
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
Even better, is the 17th century tune Salzburg (best known for “Songs of thankfulness and praise” H40: 53). I enjoyed singing the middle two verses of the four-part harmony by J. S. Bach, a harmonization that in my book is hard to beat.

Recessional: Jesus Christ is Risen today (H40: 85; H82: 207)

As I texted our daughter this morning, the 1st commandment of Anglican hymn selection is to end on an upbeat tune. At Easter time, this seems eminently well suited.

For the recessional, we sang all four verses: 2nd and 3rd in harmony, 4th unison with descant. Hymnal 1982 also lists a descant from the 1950 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern.

The 14th century text, Surrexit Christus hodie, has been translated multiple times since 1708. The H40 hymnal companion attributes the current version of the tune to a compilation by John Wesley and the final addition to the text to Charles Wesley.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Exemplary Passion anthem

Hymns for Palm Sunday and the Passion narrative tend to focus on Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. However, in choir we are rehearsing “Ihr Töchter Zions”:
Ihr Töchter Zions, weint über euch selbst und über eure Kinder.
Denn siehe, es wird die Zeit kommen,
da werdet ihr sagen zu den Bergen: fallt über uns!
Und zu den Hügeln: deckt uns!
It is from Felix Mendelssohn’s sacred oratorio, Christus, Op. 97. The anthem is in triple meter and it feels like one of Mendelssohn’s dances or songs, with the lyric passages plaintive in Christ’s warning to the citizens of Jerusalem.

On Thursday, we are singing it in English translation:
Daughters of Zion, weep for yourselves and your children,
For surely the days are coming,
when they shall exclaim to the mountains: “Fall down on us!”
and to the hills: “hide us!”
The text is adapted from Luke 23:26-28 (KJV):
26. But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
27. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
28. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
This is the passage (only in Luke) of the passion, after Jesus has been condemned by Pilate but before he arrives at Calvary.

The phrase “Daughters of Zion” does not appear in Luke, but does appear earlier in the passion narrative upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem — in Matthew (21:5) and John (12:15) — both quoting Zechariah 9:9 and Isaiah 62:11.

The reading shows up in the lectionary differently among Anglican prayer books. In the 1928 BCP, it’s the gospel for the Maundy Thursday mass, as it was in the 1662 BCP.

From 1979 onward, ECUSA (and the ACNA) have read Luke 23 the same way in their parallel three year lectionaries: the 1979 prayer book, RCL, and ACNA trial use. In all three, Luke 23 appears in the Sunday lectionary on Palm Sunday Year C (2016 and 2019).

Whenever this gospel is read, this Mendelssohn piece seems like a great anthem to support that reading.