Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster

Monday, 01 August 2016 12:42


Evensong, as a distinctly Anglican service, dates back to the Anglican Reformation.  In Archbishop Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, Evensong (which came to be called Evening Prayer) in later versions of the book, was derived from two medieval evening monastic Offices (services sung at particular times of the day): Vespers, which always included the singing of the Magnificat, and Compline, which was the last service before bedtime and included the singing of the Nunc Dimittis.  Cranmer combined the two because this was intended to be a daily liturgy for the general public, which could not attend multiple services each day.  He put the entire liturgy into English, where it had been in Latin.  The Psalter was organized so that between Matins (sung in the morning) and Evensong, the entire psalter would be chanted every month.  The psalms are still printed this way in our 1979 Prayer Book, beginning with “First Day: Morning Prayer” (Psalms 1 through 5), and ending with “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer” (Psalms 147 through 150).

Tuesday, 05 July 2016 09:35

Forgotten Verses

Years ago, I was helping a very elderly widow plan the music for her funeral. She wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t sing anything from “that horrible new hymnal.” I said mildly that some of her favorites were bound to be in the ’82 Hymnal. “You mean 1882?” she asked confusedly. No, I meant the 1982 we were using now, I responded. “Oh, good heavens, I can’t even read the print in that awful thing,” she said. “No, no, when I talk about that horrible new hymnal I mean that blue one…you know…” It turned out the “Horrible New Hymnal” was the Hymnal 1940. She had managed as a young woman to get used to the Episcopal Hymnal 0f 1916 – though her childhood predated even that one –but had been in a state of barely suppressed rage for decades over the 1940 Hymnal leaving out “all my favorites.” So her funeral used entirely hymns which we copied from the 1916 version, including Barnby’s setting of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” (number 412 in the Hymnal 1916):

Wednesday, 01 June 2016 12:26

Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

                The Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725-1807) is perhaps best known as the author of the hymn “Amazing grace,” which he wrote when he became an advocate for the abolition of slavery, an institution which he had for years participated in as a slave trader himself.   The fascinating story of his life has inspired a number of films including the 2006 “Amazing Grace,” a movie in which Newton is portrayed by the actor Albert Finney.

Sunday, 01 May 2016 12:23

Veni Creator Spiritus

                Congregational hymn-singing is really not in the Anglican tradition – or at least not in the way that it became an integral part of the Lutheran Reformation.  This is still reflected in the different ways in which Lutherans and Anglicans approach hymns which are new to them.  A Lutheran congregation, presented with an unfamiliar hymn, cheerfully and robustly sings wrong notes or sort of shouts the words in rhythm until, after several verses, they figure out the tune, more or less, seeming to enjoy themselves and whatever the musical novelty is.  The Anglican worshiper simply closes the hymnal on the second verse, sticks it back in the pew rack, folds his arms across his chest and glares in the direction of the organist, if sight-lines permit.  This is because the Lutherans had Luther himself, a musician, who adapted many secular tunes and medieval chants for congregational use in the German language from the very beginning of the Reformation in Germany.  We had no equivalent.  Although the Book of Common Prayer Noted (meaning “with music” or “set to music”) was published in 1550, and many of us remember using the Merbecke Communion Service from it with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there was a remarkable absence of hymns in English, as opposed to liturgical texts from the Prayer Book set to music.

Monday, 04 April 2016 09:26

The Reproaches

Also known as the Improperia, the Reproaches are traditionally sung on Good Friday. They have been in some liturgies since the ninth century, both in the East and West, gradually becoming widespread until they were officially put in the Roman Ordo in the fourteenth century. They also made their way into the Lutheran liturgy for Tenebrae on Good Friday. Here at Grace Church, after a hiatus of a few years, we will sing them again on Good Friday afternoon during the Veneration of the Cross.

Friday, 29 January 2016 10:35

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

The many names of the feast on February 2nd suggest how complicated the day is: The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Meeting of Christ with Simeon, Candlemas, and, of course, Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day originated as a pre-Christian feast. February 2nd falls half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In southern parts of Europe and milder climates in the British Isles, it was time to celebrate the return of the sun and prepare the fields for planting. The weather on that day (including whether a badger or hedgehog could “see its shadow”) enabled the farmers to predict when winter would end. This became a folk belief in England well into medieval times, as reflected by lots of little seasonal customs and rhymes:

Tuesday, 24 November 2015 00:00

The Midnight Cry

Carols did not originate in church – they were popular music, folk songs really, that were danced to and sung in the vernacular by the illiterate peasantry. Their main association with the church was that some of them made it into the medieval mystery plays, those wonderful dramas that made theology so visual, down-to-earth, and entertaining. An example of a medieval carol that we still sing today is “Good Christian men, rejoice,” which originally had little bits of Latin in it and was called “In dulci jubilo.” I translated that as “In Sweetest Joy,” and used it for the title of the Christmas CD made on the Grace Church organ several years ago, which has some organ settings of that carol on it.

Friday, 02 October 2015 00:00

Lift High the Cross

A ‘panegyric’ is usually a formal tribute or speech, sometimes a long poem, in honor of a famous person. This term is used for the Life of Constantine, written by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. This work likens the Emperor Constantine to Moses, contrasting the piety of Constantine with the harshness of the emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians. The biography in four volumes may have historical inaccuracies, but it is one of the most important sources of information about religious policies under the Roman Empire at this time.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015 18:00

Music for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Sarum Rite, used in Salisbury, England, was a rich source for new hymns, some of which are still found in our hymnals today. O wondrous type, O vision fair, which we sing every year on August 6th and on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, was one of these: Caelestis formam gloriae, Quam spes quaerit ecclesiae. Unfortunately, the first line is tricky to translate, and I don’t know that “O wondrous type! O vision fair” is the best solution. Some hymnals have “O wondrous sight,” which is more idiomatic but less accurate. “Form” would be better. Some versions use “image,” which seems inadequate to express the poet’s idea. It has been in Anglican hymnals since 1854, when the translator John Mason Neale published the following translation:

Sunday, 31 May 2015 18:00

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah

I am not quite old enough to remember the first release of The African Queen, the 1951 film starring Katherine Hepburn and Robert Morley as prim Methodist missionaries in German East Africa just before World War I. Humphrey Bogart plays the rude, gin-swilling captain of a dilapidated steamboat (the African Queen) who Katherine Hepburn somehow persuades to attack a German warship, the Koenigin Luise, by transforming the near derelict African Queen into a makeshift torpedo boat. I have added this to my collection of movies with favorite terrible hymn-singing scenes, as Katherine Hepburn furiously pumps away at a wreck of an old reed organ, desperately singing “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” while the native congregation drones away loudly but uncomprehendingly in no particular key.

Thursday, 30 April 2015 18:00

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Rogation Sunday, falling on May 10th this year, will coincide nicely in Wisconsin with the coming of beautiful weather and the planting of crops. The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare,’ meaning to ask for or petition – in this case, asking God for blessings on the planting fields and for protection from floods, droughts, and bad weather. The observance originated as a substitute for the ancient Roman festival of Robigalia, held late in April, which featured the ritual sacrifice of dogs to protect grain fields from disease and to ensure favorable crop yields. The feast was named for the god Robigus, a somewhat malignant deity who could both cause and prevent agricultural disease, and therefore had to be mollified. “Robigo” is still the scientific name for a form of reddish-brown wheat rust. In the Roman magic of antiquity, the connection with the color red led to the use of puppies with reddish coats for sacrifice, the blood also calling to mind Mars as both a god of war (bloodshed) and agriculture. The feast was also observed with processions, prayers of protection for the crops against natural disasters, and chariot races.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015 19:00

The Spring of Souls

The problem with being one-half of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan is that no one ever takes you seriously. But, in addition to the fourteen operettas, Sir Arthur Sullivan, having studied classical composition in Leipzig for three years in his youth, wrote serious symphonic music and church music which he hoped would be his legacy. His oratorio, ‘The Light of the World,’ composed in 1873, held a place in English church music for decades. And we all know at least a few of his many hymn tunes, which include “Onward, Christian soldiers,” “Welcome, happy morning,” and “Come ye faithful, raise the strain.”

We always sing “Come ye faithful, raise the strain” during the Easter season. The text is based on the “Song of Moses,” or “Cantemus Domino,” from Exodus 15, which begins:

Saturday, 28 February 2015 18:00

Like as the Heart

Having given up “Alleluia” in the liturgy for Lent, our Alleluia before the Gospel is replaced at Grace Church by several verses of a psalm sung to plainsong. This is called a Tract. This comes from the Latin word “tractim,” which in this case may simply mean something sung without interruption or response – that is, there is no refrain. The original Gregorian melodies were more ornate than the simple psalm tones that are expedient to use here at Grace, but the words for the Tracts have always consisted of psalm verses from one psalm at a time, often more penitential than an Alleluia verse, but not necessarily sorrowful. Hopefully, the words of the Tracts are consistent with the themes of the readings, and enhance the surrounding scripture without impeding their flow. The objection to singing a hymn at this point, as some churches do, is that by the time the hymn is over one has been thoroughly distracted from what the previous scripture was, which detracts from the continuity of the readings rather than aiding it, unless a hymn can be found that is closely related to the Gospel.

Saturday, 31 January 2015 18:00

Wash Me Throughly

            Yes, it was “throughly,” not “thoroughly,” both in Miles Coverdale’s psalm translation of 1535, and in the King James (“Authorized”) version.  We may think we grew up with the King James Bible, if we are old enough, but we forget how much the spellings were modernized by the time it became part of our childhoods.  In the edition of 1611, Psalm 51 began:
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 18:00

We Three Kings – an American Carol

The story of the journey of the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12 identifies the sages only as “wise men from the East,” which could mean Arabia or Mesopotamia, or beyond. It is factually clear only that they are astrologers or astronomers from far away, their questions indicating that they are Gentiles. Were they kings? Certainly they were received with respect and seriousness at Herod’s court; but more importantly, their homage was seen by very early Christians as fulfilling prophecies such as “all kings shall bow down before him” having to do with Gentile kings (see Isaiah 60:33, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10). They were called “kings” in the church by the second century. Were there three of them? In the Orthodox traditions, they are sometimes twelve of them! The number three seems to be inferred only by their spiritually symbolic gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
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