Saturday 23 January 2010

Music and Worship

The following items together make up the short book 'Music and Worship' which the Parish of Chandler's Ford published for me in 2007. The twenty-odd articles (each of 500-600 words) had previously appeared in 'Parish News', usually in alternate months.

Here you'll find them in reverse order, the last one at the top. So you will have to start from the bottom if you want to read the articles in the order in which they were written - sorry.

You may like to visit the Chandler's Ford parish website at .

Thursday 14 January 2010

Music and Worship: Composers and Composing: Part 2

There are several ways of composing. One is by improvisation – making up music by playing or singing it, before (perhaps) remembering it and then (perhaps) writing it down. This is how most composers of jazz and popular music work, but some ‘classical’ composers, including Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, were fine improvisers too. On a much less ambitious level, many organists improvise, particularly to provide short ‘filling in’ passages in a service, for example as the choir enters.

Some people can hear musical ideas in their heads and then memorise them or capture them in writing. Mozart is said to have been able to conceive complete works in this way. Paul McCartney apparently woke one morning to hear the music and words of ‘Yesterday’ in his head. Are such things the fruits of divine inspiration? God has certainly given prodigious musical gifts to some, but it’s principally the diligent cultivation of these gifts that leads to successful composing. Do you recall Thomas Edison’s remark that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration (i.e. hard work!)?

Much composition is done on paper, using various rules and shortcuts to make extended pieces out of ideas conceived in the head or through improvisation. Because it’s the sound not the look of the music that really matters, people who compose on paper have to hear what they write – but of course memory gradually helps you associate the symbols on the page with the sounds they represent. Nevertheless composers usually try out what they’ve written on the piano or some other instrument and then make changes and improvements, having heard the ‘real’ sound of what they’ve written.

Finally, a short case-study. The opening of an Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) often sung at St Boniface in Ordinary Time came to me straight off when I decided to set these words.

[Original article had Sibelius graphic at this point. The book ‘Music and Worship’ printed the whole piece.]

It wasn’t inspiration – more a kind of subconscious mixing up in my head of lots of similar simple melodies heard before. I wanted a kind of gentle flow (almost like plainsong), so all notes were of equal length. How should I follow this? ‘Have mercy on us’ suggests humility, lowliness. So I used melody notes low in the range, all at the same pitch – with little energy or vigour.

The words of the Agnus Dei are in three sections, the second exactly the same as the first. To reuse the music of the first section in the second is labour-saving and easier for singers, but perhaps a little unenterprising. Why not, then, go up slightly higher on the second ‘Have mercy on us’, as if there were now greater hope that mercy might be granted? The third section begins with the same words as the first and second. By now the opening melody needs change; I gave it a lift at the end to prepare us for the closing petition ‘Grant us peace’. How greatly we need peace – in the world, perhaps in our neighbourhood, at work, in our homes or inside us – so why not ask God for it more than once, insistently, each time to a similar but slightly different phrase?

[This ends the final article from 'Music and Worship' (2007).]

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Music and Worship: Composers and Composing, Part 1

Everyone studying GCSE or A level Music these days has to be competent in three activities considered central to the subject – performing, listening, and composing.

All very reasonable, but slightly puzzling if you were brought up to think of composing (literally ‘putting together’) music as beyond the reach of all but a few geniuses.
This article and the next provide a few insights into composers and composing. They’re mostly about church music, but remember that there’s nothing essentially different in composing for church and composing for the theatre, the pop charts or the concert hall.

Look at any music edition of a hymn book, and it usually tells you who composed each tune. For example, the tune for Anglican Hymns Old and New (AH) 6 (‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide’), appropriately called ‘Eventide’, is by W. H. Monk (1823–1889). Monk, an organist, music teacher, and one of the musical editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern, wrote other well-known tunes, including ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (AH 26), a favourite at baptisms and weddings.

But if we look at AH 4 (‘A new commandment’) things are less straightforward, because we don’t know who composed the tune. Was its composer too modest to acknowledge his work? Was the piece produced by a whole community or by several individuals? Whatever the answer, the music given for AH 4 is arranged by Andrew Moore, who has created a version readily performable with unison voices plus piano, organ and/or guitar(s). Anonymous music is not that rare – think, for example, of the melody for ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ (AH 123), which, like all plainsong, is centuries old and of obscure origin. The tune of ‘Morning has broken’ (AH 510) is one of several folk melodies sung in church, and as with most folk music we don’t know who composed it.

The tune of AH 244 ‘God is our strength’ is a simplified version of a melody composed by Martin Luther (1483–1546), which originally went to his own German words. But the harmony (the parts added to the tune and played instrumentally and/or sung by altos, tenors and basses) is not Luther’s. It’s in the style of (but probably not actually by) J. S. Bach (1685–1750).

Our church music is largely by modern writers of worship songs such as Graham Kendrick (b. 1950), and by minor ‘classical’ composers like Monk, or J. B. Dykes who wrote ‘Gerontius’ (see a previous article in this series). But we sometimes go further afield, making contact for instance with Bach, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Edward Elgar (1857–1934), or Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). All four have featured in recent [2007] services – for example. Elgar’s ‘Land of hope and glory’ and ‘Nimrod’ were played on 3 June 2007 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

On the other hand we sometimes draw on local resources – for example, the fine tune ‘St Martin in the Wood’ is by John Caldwell, former churchwarden.

But how do composers go about creating music? Is it by picking out melodies on a piano or guitar? By hearing it in their heads? By writing it down, using complicated rules?

Music and Worship: Strictly Voluntary

The organ pieces before and after many church services are known as voluntaries. One explanation is that they’re voluntary not compulsory – the organist needn’t play them, and the congregation needn’t listen!

But the word voluntary, first used in the sixteenth century, seems to have meant originally a piece that was freely composed – that is, not based on a plainsong melody. The earliest organ music (from the middle ages) had been chiefly founded on plainsong, the most widely used church music at that time.

Most organ music since the sixteenth century has been freely composed, but some composers, especially in Germany, have written pieces based on hymn tunes. These pieces are usually known as organ chorales or chorale preludes (a chorale, pronounced ‘korAHL’, is a German hymn). J. S. Bach (1685–1750) is still the best known (and best) writer of such pieces. One of these is based on the so-called Passion chorale, the tune still sung in Holy Week for ‘O sacred head’. You can hear the melody clearly in the treble, despite the addition of a few ornamental notes.

Another composer who deserves special mention at this time [2007], because it’s exactly 300 years since his death, is Dieterich Buxtehude (born c. 1637). He was organist for many years at Lübeck in North Germany. (A condition of appointment was that he married his predecessor’s daughter – a common thing in Germany at the time, and, where the daughter was less than attractive, a possible reason for local difficulties with recruitment!) Buxtehude must have been a busy man, as he was church secretary, treasurer and business manager as well as organist.

Buxtehude’s music was much admired by Bach, who travelled 200 miles or more to hear him (on foot, it’s thought). Quite a few of Buxtehude’s chorale preludes are heard at St Boniface before a service – typically the hymn melody is played in the right hand and is so much ornamented that even if you did know the original tune you’d find it quite hard to identify.
Buxtehude wrote also some larger-scale and more showy pieces, not based on chorales. These include toccatas and preludes, both of which include passages in fugue style. Bach was the most important composer of fugues, and it’s not uncommon to hear one of these at the end of a service.

A fugue is based on a ‘subject’ played at the beginning on its own, as a single string of notes without accompaniment. The musical texture then builds as the subject enters in one part (layer) of the music after another. The subject continues to appear from time to time throughout the piece, often with a big climactic presentation near the end. One of the best-known organ fugues is Bach’s ‘St Anne’, so called because, by chance, the subject resembles the English tune ‘St Anne’ (sung to ‘O God, our help in ages past’). There are better grounds for an alternative name – the ‘Trinity’ fugue – because the piece is literally three-in-one (three distinct fugue sections making up one piece).

Fugues are sometimes thought of as serious, learned, academic – and therefore boring. Some are not easy listening, but perhaps they don’t need to be. Music is wonderfully able to stimulate the senses, the body (as in dancing) and the soul (in worship), but maybe occasionally it can offer a little exercise for the brain as well.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Music and Worship: Mary and Simeon – Evensong: Part 2

Central to Evensong are two very different figures – Mary, the young mother of Jesus, and the elderly man Simeon.

After the first reading at Evensong, we sing Mary’s song from Luke, chapter 1, verses 46–55, often called the Magnificat after the old Latin version of the song. Mary uttered these words when she visited her relative Elisabeth. Both women were pregnant (middle-aged Elisabeth with John the Baptist, young Mary with Jesus). Mary’s song of praise owes much to Hannah’s song of thanks for her young son Samuel (1 Samuel, chapter 2).

The Magnificat starts with a note of joy, familiar to many people from the paraphrase by Timothy Dudley-Smith, ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’ (tune ‘Woodlands’). Later the mood changes, and we are reminded of a Gospel paradox: God overthrows the mighty, and raises up ordinary people; he feeds the poor but sends away empty those who are rich in their own eyes.

The Magnificat is followed by a New Testament reading, often from one of the Gospels. Next comes the song of Simeon from Luke 2: 29–32 (called Nunc Dimittis after the opening of the Latin version). As Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms in the Temple, he gives praise that he has lived to see God’s all-encompassing salvation – both ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and…the glory of…Israel’. The opening words ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ imply that Simeon was elderly, content to die after seeing his lifelong hopes fulfilled.

Simeon’s song is followed by the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of Christian belief broadly similar to the Nicene Creed said at Communion services, but shorter. The Lord’s Prayer and a sung dialogue between minister and congregation follows, and then there are three set prayers or ‘collects’. The first is for the day, the second for peace,* the third for aid against all perils. Evensong ended here in the first (1549) Book of Common Prayer.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has additional set prayers, but we now have intercessions after the third collect (similar to those in Communion services). An anthem is sometimes sung by the choir, and everyone joins in a hymn. A sermon follows, and there is another hymn, a blessing and a concluding piece of organ music.

Evensong is an important part of our worship in Chandler’s Ford, but there are two dangers. The first is that regular attenders can be lulled into over-familiarity and inattention simply because some items appear every time (including the songs of Mary and Simeon). But the second is perhaps greater – that people will be put off by the slightly unusual language and miss out on a lot of valuable insights. Evensong is very much a Bible-based service, and its fairly gentle pace offers valuable opportunities for reflection in a busy world.

*O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give…

Music and Worship: Welcome to Evensong, Part 1

Chandler’s Ford is one of few parishes in its area with Evensong on most Sunday evenings. Older readers will know that Evensong was once widely offered and well attended – we can speculate why the change has taken place, but might also note that attendances for Evensong have increased at some cathedrals in recent years.

Evensong can present ‘problems’ because it’s based on the Book of Common Prayer with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and other old-fashioned language. (The earliest Book of Common Prayer dates from 1549, about 50 years before Shakespeare wrote his plays. The style of language in the 1662 Book, as now used, is the same.) There are powerful commonsense arguments against archaic language in worship. But on the other hand, the distancing effect of old language can cause us to examine what we hear in a new way.

What happens at Evensong? Before the service the organist plays, to try to create an atmosphere in which it’s possible for people to reflect, pray, prepare in some other way, or just listen. The choir enters, a short welcome is given, and then an opening hymn is sung. Hymns are [starting in 2009] from Anglican Hymns Old and New, the book that we use at morning Eucharists, although we stick to the more traditional hymns at Evensong.

After the hymn there is a prayer of confession, and a declaration of God’s forgiveness. The confession raises two important issues. First, we say that we are ‘miserable offenders’, an expression that can seem grovelling and at odds with twentieth-century concepts of self-worth – can it tell us anything about ourselves and our relationship with God? Secondly, we say this quite long prayer week after week. Does it become just a meaningless flow of words (however beautifully constructed the sentences)? If so, does that tell us something about all liturgies or something about ourselves?

A short sung dialogue between minister and congregation follows. It begins ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’ with the reply ‘And our mouth shall show forth thy praise’. These words are based on Psalm 51, verse 15.

After the dialogue we sing together a complete psalm or part of a psalm. The psalms together formed the nearest that the ancient church (and the Jewish synagogue) had to a hymn book. For the people who wrote the psalms no holds were barred. They were prepared to shout at God, to give ecstatic praises, to pour out their woes – and so on. Perhaps we can identify still with some of their thoughts, beliefs and emotions, or at least learn from them more about the human condition.

The psalm is followed by a reading from the Old Testament. You might almost say that scripture is at the centre of Evensong, and the centre of Evensong (from the psalm through to the song after the second reading) is scripture.

Why not sample Evensong for yourself if you haven’t done so before or for ages? Has it something unique to say to us? To you?

Music and Worship: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

Charles Wesley was one of the most powerful Christian poets of all time. A lecturer for my English course at Southampton University made a similar point to the amusement of the class (including myself) who considered the ‘hymn = poetry/literature’ equation pretty crazy.

Charles Wesley (1707–1788) was brother of John Wesley, and himself a founding father of Methodism. But several of his poems have taken root in almost every Christian tradition.
‘And can it be’, based on Wesley’s conversion experience, has a fair bit of theological jargon, but otherwise the language is straightforward and, if you have a grounding in the Christian faith, as clear as when written more than 200 years ago. But for some it may be very puzzling. What’s this in verse 1 about ‘an interest in the Saviour’s blood’? How can I have ‘pursued’ the Saviour to death? Wesley acknowledges the central mystery in verse 2: ‘The Immortal dies’ – someone who can’t die (‘immortal’ = ‘non-mortal’) does die.

‘Jesu, lover of my soul’, on the other hand, begins like a love song. Was Wesley thinking of the Song of Solomon, a love poem seen as an allegory of Christ as the (male) lover of the (female) believer/soul/church? ‘Hark! the herald-angels sing’, one of the most widely sung of all carols, is partly by Wesley, partly by others.

But probably the best known of all Charles Wesley’s hymns is ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’. The opening verse unfolds slowly. It’s only in line 5 that it becomes totally clear that the divine love which surpasses all other loves is Jesus. In fact this is the only time that the name Jesus appears. But other phrases refer to him, including ‘almighty to deliver’ and ‘end of faith, as its beginning’ (an unusual form of address!). Essentially the whole poem is a hymn to Jesus – God the Father is not mentioned. Some hymnbooks have four eight-line verses. Others omit the second (‘Breathe, O breathe’) even though the reference to the Holy Spirit is pretty vital to the meaning of the poem and to our Christian experience.

‘Love divine’ has never quite settled in with any one tune. It’s said that Wesley himself had in mind a tune by the seventeenth-century composer Henry Purcell (‘Fairest Isle’ – Venus’s Song from King Arthur, a semi-opera). It fits nicely, but hasn’t caught on. Some people nowadays like the tune ‘Love divine’ by Sir John Stainer (1840–1901). This has four phrases, so the four eight-line verses referred to above become eight four-line verses. A bit repetitive, but the tune itself is good. Many people now prefer the eight-phrase tune ‘Blaenwern’, perhaps thinking it more modern, although the composer W.P. Rowlands was actually only 20 years younger than Stainer. ‘Blaenwern’ is in a lilting three-four time. Having started low, it builds to a wonderful climax at ‘pure unbounded love thou art; visit us…’. It can sound immensely effective, as at a recent All Souls service [2006] when about 200 people really made something of the final verse ‘Finish then Thy new creation’.

Other tunes will fit. Sir Charles Stanford, contemporary of Stainer and Rowland, and a better composer than either, wrote ‘Airedale’, but I’ve never heard this used and am not tempted. ‘Hyfrydol’ by R.H. Prichard (1811–1887) and ‘Thornbury’ by Basil Harwood (1859–1949) are among other tunes that fit well. Perhaps they should have their turn occasionally?