Monday, August 13, 2012

60s greatest hit

A music director or priest has to make many liturgical decisions every week: sometimes their choices are inexplicable, sometimes they miss a great opportunity, and sometimes the lectionary and hymn guides make it nearly impossible to get it wrong.

Yet other times, everything comes together as if the Kapellmeister of Leipzig, JS Bach himself, had planned it out. That’s what happened Sunday when we attended a “blended” service at a Hymnal 1982 ACNA parish.

The readings didn’t follow the RCL assignment for Year B Proper 19 nor that in the 1979 “prayer book”. The first reading, Deuteronomy 8:1-10, described manna from heaven. The last reading, the Gospel, made explicit the linkage between the Hebrews in the Sinai and Holy Communion:
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

43 Jesus answered them, …
44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—
46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.
47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
48 I am the bread of life.
49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:37-51)
For communion, after an Amy Grant CCM song, the bulletin provided the words for Hymn #335 from Hymnal 1982:
I am the bread of life; they who come to me shall not hunger; they who believe in me shall not thirst. No one can come to me unless the Father draw them.

Refrain: And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.

The bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world; and they who eat of this bread, they shall live forever, they shall live forever. Refrain.

I am the resurrection, I am the life. They who believe in me, even if they die, they shall live forever. Refrain.

Yes, Lord we believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world. Refrain.
Unfamiliar with the tune, my eldest asked if this was from Hymnal 1982. She recognized that if I could sing the harmony of the refrain from memory, that it held a special place in my heart. (She also asked if “Amazing Grace” was in H40, thus recognizing the only other significant improvement provided by H82 over H40).

As I wrote three years ago:
[W]ithin Hymnal 1982 are a few new hymns that I am convinced will survive to the 22nd century, including my all-time favorite, the 1966 “I Am the Bread of Life” by Sister Suzanne Toolan.
Toolan’s text works as a direct restatement of John’s gospel — a linkage I never heard before this week. (It appears that H82 uses a PC “inclusive” version of the text, but I don’t have access to the original online.)

But, sappy as it is, her music also seems to work in a timeless way. The verses (where the congregation usually has more trouble singing) have a very simple voice leading, even if the melisma is not very intuitive and inconsistent between verses. The refrain has a more dramatic leading, but after five verses, just about anyone could learn it. And — my own particular joy — the bass part is very easy, with V-I-V-I' at the root of the chord progression in the first phrase, and nearly as simple for the remainder of the refrain. Hence my ability to sing the refrain — from memory — as we waited and walked up to the communion rail.

I have not read Toolan’s story, so I don’t know how long it took her to write and compose this hymn. Still, after suffering through the fingernails on chalkboard of so many Celebration and other CCM hymns of the past 40 years, the inspiration of this one success suggests that it might be possible to compose my own text (or tune) someday.

1 comment:

Jefferson said...

"Not very intuitive" regarding the melisma is an understatement. Having heard it sung for years in congregational settings, the only ones who seemed to get it right were choristers, seminarians, and clergy.