Lift up your hearts!

What is the purpose of a choir?

It’s not to perform difficult music before a silent and intimidated (or irritated) congregation. It’s not there to impress the faithful–it’s there to encourage the faithful to find their voices to praise God in his holiness.  It is what we call a ministry…

So said Father John Andrew, Rector emeritus of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, in a fantastic (ten-minute) sermon given a week ago Sunday on the purpose and importance of music in worship.

Read or listen to the sermon here;
check out the entire St. Thomas archive of webcasts here


Hymn 493: “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion”

This was the title of Charles Wesley’s “O for a thousand tongues to sing” when he first published it in his Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1740.  Later, it was chosen by his brother John to be the first hymn in A Collection of Hymns for Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), the first true Methodist hymnal.

For this reason it is has generally been placed at the beginning of the hymnals of the United Methodist church and its forerunner Methodist denominations in this country (with the exception of the 1932 Methodist Hymnal, which led off with ‘Holy, holy holy’).  Methodists in the UK, however, do not attach the same significance; their hymnals tend begin with a paraphrases of Psalm 100 (either ‘Before Jehovah’s awful throne’ or ‘All people that on earth do dwell’).

In American hymnals, “O for a thousand tongues” almost always appears with the familiar hymntune Azmon.  Azmon is a sturdy melody in triple time by Carl Gotthilf Gläser (1784-1824), a provincial German composer and teacher that had been a boy chorister at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.  It is interesting to note, again, that Brits do not hold to any such strict monogamy between texts and tunes, particularly in this case.  One can see in the illustration above that Wesley indicated ‘Birstal Tune’ was the tune for this text, but that did not catch on either.  In a quick glance through my modest hymnal collection, I found this hymn paired with no fewer than twelve different tunes.  This might seem bewildering, but it isn’t actually that surprising—because of the straightforward meter of the poetry, this hymn can be sung to a wide variety of tunes (including the themes to The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’sIsland).

My favorite tune for this him, the one we sang when I was at university in Wales, is an early 19th-century fuguing tune by Thomas Jarman called Lyngham:

Lyngham has a sprightly melody with several repetitions of the text and lots of interplay between the parts; it has a very similar musical character as Azmon, actually, but is a much longer and more elaborate tune.

As with many of the hymns we sing, this one is excerpted from a much longer poem.  Wesley’s original has 18 stanzas beginning with the text ‘Glory to God, and praise and love.’  The part we know begins at stanza 7.  The number of stanzas that editors tend to include in hymnals varies between five and eight, with as many as ten in Wesley’s original 1780 collection.  As often as not, stanza 1 will be appended to the end of the hymn as a sort of summing up—this is the case in Thy Hymnal 1982.

There is a companion volume to the hymnal that has background and commentary on all the hymns.  The entry on this hymn observes that “this important text by Charles Wesley has suffered at the hands of past Revision Committees of the Hymnal.” Well, I’m sorry to say that the suffering continued at the hands of Revision Committee for the present hymnal.  I am talking about what they did in stanza 5: “Hear him, he deaf: his praise, ye dumb / your loosened tongues employ.”  Now in fairness, I have to admit that “dumb” is considered a bad word by my pre-school aged sons, but I really fail to see who else but a six year old could misunderstand or take offence to its use in the context.  The solution that the committee put forward is typically vapid:  “Hear him, he deaf: ye voiceless ones / your loosened tongues employ.”  Being voiceless (hoarse?  shy?  victim of political repression?) does not pack the punch of being dumb–physically unable to talk.  Also, changing the end of the first line from “dumb” to “ones” necessitated changing the end of the third line from “come” to “comes,” and even at that they don’t rhyme.  To me the thing is just…well, dumb.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, here is the full eighteen stanzas of Wesley’s original hymn.  The harlots, publicans, and sons of lust in the later stanzas can be read as eighteenth-century “quaint,” but the penultimate stanza contains an image so shocking to modern ears that it would be completely unusable in any worship context –it was omitted in the “full” version of the text in the current United Methodist hymnal.

Glory to God, and praise and love
Be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heaven.

On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
on my benighted soul he shone
and filled it with repose.

Sudden expired the legal strife,
’twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.

Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
to call the Savior mine.

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
me, me he loved, the Son of God,
for me, for me he died!

I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace.

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life, and health, and peace!

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.

He speaks, and listening to his voice
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

Hear him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Look unto him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race!
Look, and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace!

See ally our sins on Jesus laid;
The Lamb of God was slain,
His soul was once an offering made
For every soul of man.

Harlot sand publicans and thieves,
in holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

Murderers and all ye hellish crew,
ye sons of lust and pride,
believe the Savior died for you;
for me the Savior died.

Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the Ethiop white.

With me, your chief, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below
and own that love is heaven.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), gesturing for the altos to sing just a bit more softly

Holy. holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: Trinity Sunday

June 3, 2012 – 11:00 am

Erin Althoff and Doug Merritt, violins;
Jennifer Klich, viola; Patrick O’Neil, cello;
Timothy Olsen, organ

Wie der Hirsch schreit (Like as the hart desireth)

from Psalm 42, Op. 42 (1837/38)

Listen to the piece here.

This piece is quintessential Mendelssohn, in all its romantic sweetness and lyricism.  It works well as a stand-alone anthem, but it is actually the opening movement of a longer work.

The longer work is one of a handful of Psalms on which Mendelssohn wrote multi-movement cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra. (Smell Bach’s influence here? Me too…more on that another day.)  This one, which sets the text of Psalm 42 over 7 movements, is a big one.  It’s about 35 minutes long and requires a solo soprano, a solo male quartet, and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus.  The orchestral forces required and just as big as the vocal forces—strings and a full wind section including four horns, trumpets, trombones, and timpani.  Because Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 is such a big piece, it not performed very often—after all, if you are looking to do a multi-movement work of Mendelssohn with a full orchestra, why not just do Elijah?

For this performance (for lack of a better term) we did my own arrangement of the piece, and I would like to briefly tell the story of how that arrangement came about.  First, a bit of philosophy:

For me personally, I start from the premise that every musical performance is, by definition, a set of compromises.  I say “by definition” because I think that the first and most serious compromise occurs at the very moment of composition: that is, when the composer writes notes on page, they are already an imperfect shorthand representation of the sound that he imagines in his head.  When a performer picks up that page his job to bring his best musical knowledge to bear in rendering the notes (which are just symbols) back into sound (which is the actual thing).  This too is an imperfect and reasonably subjective process.  The context of our performance, the ability of our ensembles, and the resources we have available will necessarily determine the decisions—the compromises—that go into the process.

Now from general to specific: how did all this work out in terms of this particular piece?

The first and most obvious decision was one presented by all choral music in foreign languages.  Singing the original German is obviously closer to the composer’s intent, and one generally finds that the right vowels are in the right ranges, and the right stresses are on the right beats.  But to sing in a foreign language presents an obvious barrier to English-speaking listeners; this is an especially important consideration for music used in worship.  Singing in a foreign language can also pose a challenge to an amateur choir with limited rehearsal time.  Singing an English translation, on the other hand, can make things more accessible to the both the singer and the listener, but it can also be a significant degree of separation from the composer’s intent—especially if the translation isn’t a good one.  In fact, some translations actually create musical difficulties not present in the original.  In the case of this Mendelssohn, we elected to sing in German for a couple of reasons.  In the first place, one verse of psalm text was not that much German to deal with.  Secondly, all the English translations that were readily available were pretty awkward musically.

So we didn’t compromise from Mendelssohn’s original in terms of language, but we did have to make some compromises when it came to the manner accompaniment. Doing the piece as written—with a full orchestra—was out of the question because of the obvious limitations of space, cost, and time.  This is a no-brainer; we are used to the compromise of keyboard accompaniments for orchestral works and we accept them freely, otherwise most church and community choirs would not have access a big chunk of the great music in the world.

As it happens, Mendelssohn himself wrote a piano reduction of the accompaniment for this particular piece.  It is unusual in choral-orchestral repertoire to have a piano reduction by the composer, and this option would have provided a pretty strong claim of musical authenticity. We did not go this route, however—not only because there is no piano in the choir loft, but because we wanted a fuller sound that more closely resembled the orchestral original.  To put it another way, we wanted to choose a level and method of compromise that would best suit our particular situation.

So what we did was to have a string quartet (that’s two violins, viola, and cello) play the string parts exactly as Mendelssohn wrote them.  For the wind parts (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) I arranged them for the organ, effectively making a keyboard reduction of just the wind parts.  In fact, it wasn’t even a matter of arranging—I just entered each instrument’s line into a music editing software program (in the case Finale) and then let the software condense them onto two staves to be played by the organist.  I found that the flute parts could be omitted almost entirely because they were usually doubled an octave lower by the oboes (and they were generally in too high a register for the organ anyway).  From there it was a matter of touching up a few things so that they “laid better” for the organist to play.

I also copied the cello/double bass part into the pedal of the organ so that it would sound an octave lower, as it would with the double basses of the orchestra.  We might have achieved a yet fuller sound if we had included an actual double bass with our string quartet, but I was already concerned about balance with our smallish choir.

Download the organ reduction of the wind parts here

This idea of the organ playing a reduction of the wind parts while a quartet (or quartet plus bass) plays the original string parts is one that has been knocking around in my head for a long time, and I don’t know to what degree of success it could be used.  In this instance, my sense is that it worked pretty well.  To those who would say, “Hey you knucklehead—that’s not what Mendelssohn wrote!” I would have to acknowledge that they are of course correct.  But from where I sit, making these kinds of careful and respectful compromises is better than leaving the music on the shelf unperformed.

Listen to other hymns and anthems
from Trinity Sunday
by clicking on the links below
(download the service leaflet here):

Batten: O sing joyfully unto God
Text: Psalm 81:1-4

Kristine Chaney, soprano; Daniele Olsen, alto;
Mark Chaney, tenor; Tim Olsen. bass

Hymn 362, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty (Nicaea)

Hymn 324, Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)

stanzas 1 and 4 are harmonizations from Hymns Ancient and Modern transcribed for string quartet; stanzas 2 and 3 are from Gustav Holst’s well-known anthem setting of this hymn.

Hymn 423, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio)

Hymn 397, Now thank we all our God (Nun danket alle Gott)

+  +  +

“There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice I would finally have nothing more to do with music.  People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words.  With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words.  These too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”

-Mendelssohn in a letter to Marc-André Souchay, 1842


Hail thee, festival day: Pentecost

May 27, 2012 – Holy Eucharist, Rite II – 11:00 am

Chris Ackerman and John Crowley, trumpets;
Amy Tully, flute; Matt Ward, oboe;
Steve Kirkman, timpani

Listen to Hymn 225,
‘Hail thee, festival day’ (Salve, festa diesHERE 

Please click on the links below to hear other music from this service; download the service leaflet here

Bach: O Spirit of God, O Spirit of life

Psalm 104:25-37 (Plainsong, Tone 2)

Hymn 521, Put forth, O God, the Spirit’s might (Chelsea Square)

Gabrieli: Jubilate Deo. omnis terra

T. Tertius Noble: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’

The beautiful “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God” by T. Tertius Noble was sung by the Trinity Choir this past Sunday.  The anthem is a setting of Ephesians 4:30-32 and opens with a lengthy soprano solo that was elegantly sung in this instance by Kristine Chaney.

Listen to T. Tetius Noble’s ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’ here:

In our preparation of this anthem, the choir spent a little time musing about the lore and legend of T. Tertuis Noble himself, the founder of the noted St. Thomas Choir School in New York City.  First of all, the name:  what sort of a name is ‘Tertius’? And what does the ‘T’ stand for?  It turns out that the T is for Thomas, and that both his father and grandfather were called Thomas as well.  So he was the third Thomas Noble—hence, Tertius.

T. Tertius Noble (1867-1953) at the organ at St. Thomas

When Noble assumed the post at St. Thomas in 1912, he was already at the top of his profession in England.  He was the organist at York Minster and, at that time, the sanity of leaving ‘Old’ York for New York was seriously questioned by many.  When Noble’s successor at York Minster, Edward Bairstow, was asked about it he supposedly quipped that he would ‘rather go to the devil’ than to America.  But times do change: in fact, history repeated itself 92 years later when John Scott left St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to come to St. Thomas in 2004.

Aside from his edition of Handel’s Messiah (the gray Schirmer books), I would say that Noble’s most ubiquitous musical legacy is a volume called Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes.  It’s one of those collections of fancy accompaniments that organists use for the last verse of hymns.  The music is okay, but I think the most interesting thing by far about the book is Noble’s preface.  It gives a glimpse into church music of that era and reveals some really strongly-held biases on the part of the author.  Here are some excerpts:

“THE practice of singing hymns in unison has been a common one for many years, especially in churches where the congregation really knows the spiritual uplift to be gained from such a custom. I recall the thrilling effect produced by some seven hundred undergraduates singing in unison at Trinity College, Cambridge, England during the services held there on Sunday evenings. It was not only the unisonal singing that moved one, but also the masterful, free organ accompaniments improvised by Charles Villiers Stanford. As his assistant, from 1890 to 1892, I came under the inspiring influence of this outstanding church musician; and ever since that time it has been my practice to encourage unison singing in all hymns, at least in one verse, or, if the hymn is long, in two or three verses.

“Since retiring from active church work, I have had the opportunity of writing down some of these organ accompaniments used in actual practice. This book is the outcome of over fifty years’ experience of congregational singing in churches and cathedrals in England, and at St. Thomas’ Church, New York City. I hope that its contents will be useful to organists throughout the country in churches of every denomination; at least they will be found useful in demonstrating what can be done in this fashion. There may be some who will challenge the changes of harmony and the free accompanimental treatment that has been used to embellish the melodies.  But I am sure that a large number of organists will enjoy the varied treatments provided, and I trust they will be considered in good taste.

Now we leave introduction and enter into commentary:

“In the playing of free organ accompaniments care should be taken to avoid thick registration. Do not use “doubles” or sub-couplers on the manuals, and play the pedal part as written, in the right pitch. The constant use of the lower notes on the pedal board becomes tiresome and should be avoided. Filling in with the left hand should be discouraged, especially in the doubling of the major third and the leading note, and, of course, the promiscuous [emphasis added] adding of the seventh in the chord.  A thick, muddy effect only causes confusion and gives no aid to the congregation in singing. Clean phrasing in the pedal part as well as on the manuals is very essential.  The poor habit of “carrying over” at the end of the lines is very tiresome; this should occur only when the sense of the words demands it.

And yet more commentary:

“Some of the hymns in this collection are of a rather sentimental type, not so much from the standpoint of the melody, but because of the poor harmonization. Many of the tunes written between 1830 and 1900 suffered because the composers, although they could write a good melody, were not able to provide interesting harmonic backgrounds, with good part writing for all the voices…such boring part writing would seem tedious even for a small choir in a village church…

“The singing of hymns by the congregation should be encouraged not only by the organist, but also by the rector or minister of the church. Indeed, an occasional word from the pulpit about this important matter will be found to be most helpful. It is hoped that this collection of additional accompaniments may likewise be useful in carrying out the Psalmist’s injunction to “sing merrily unto God our strength; make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.”

T. Tertius Noble, 1946


William Billings: ‘I am the Rose of Sharon’

This Sunday the choir singing “I am the Rose of Sharon” by William Billings.  The anthem features a wonderfully racy Song of Solomon text set to music by a composer whose musical spirit and originality were unrivalled in his time; so I though that a few words of context might not be amiss.

Listen to the piece here:

William Billings (1746-1800) was America’s leading 18th-century composer.  A tanner by trade, he was completely self-taught in music.  He lived in Boston during the Revolutionary War era and was active in patriot circles that included Samuel Adams and Paul Revere (who engraved some of his music).  Many of his pieces have a nationalistic overtone.

No portrait of Billings is known to exist, but a much-quoted description by a contemporary diarist paints a dubious picture:

“He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person.  Still he spoke and sang and though as a man above the common abilities.”

In his time Billings was acclaimed as a master teacher of choral singing, and he was a leading force in establishing a uniquely American phenomenon: the 18th-century New England singing school.  He published several collections of music for use in these singing schools.  Billings’s works contained music for unaccompanied four-part chorus, but they also included lengthy introductions offering instruction in note reading, music theory, vocal technique, and rules on how to run singing schools.  These volumes were not so much intended to be music collections as they were to be music textbooks with practical examples.

‘I am the Rose of Sharon’ was published in a 1778 collection called The Singing Master’s Assistant.  In addition to 63 palm tunes and 10 anthems, The Singing Master’s Assistant has a considerable amount of instructional material, including: a preface, an advertisement, 15 lessons in music, rules for regulating a singing school, a musical dictionary, a musical creed, a letter to (of all people) the Goddess of Discord.

This matter makes for delightful reading.  A few excerpts, first from the Preface:

“KIND READER, No doubt you (do or ought to) remember, that about ten years ago, I published Book entitled, The New England Psalm Singer, &c. And truly a most masterly and inimitable Performance, I then thought it to be.  Oh! How did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy! With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and putting on the covers, with what extacy, did I yet snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and pressing it to my bosom, with rapturous delight…Welcome, thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author…

“After impartial examination, I have discovered that many of the pieces in that Book were never worth my printing, or your inspection; therefore in order you make you ample amends for my former intrusion, I have selected and corrected some of the tunes which were most approved in that book, and have added several new pieces which I think to be very good ones…”

From Lesson XIII:

“SING that part which gives you the least pain, otherwise you make it a toil, instead of pleasure; for if you attempt to sing a part which is (almost or quite) out of your reach, it is not only very laborious to the performer; but very disagreeable to trhe hearer, by reason of many wry faces and uncouth postures, which rather resemble a person in extreme pain, than one who is supposed to be pleasantly employed.  And it has been observed, that those persons, who sing with the most ease, are in general the most musical…”

From Lesson XIV:

“GOOD singing is not confined to great singing, nor is it entirely dependent on small singing.  I have hear many great voices, that never struck a harsh Note, and many small voices that never struck a pleasant one; therefore if the Tones be Musical, it is not material whether the voices be greater, or less; yet I allow there are but few voices, but what want restraining, or softening upon the high notes, to take of the harshness, which is as disagreeable to a delicate ear as a wire-edged raisor to a tender face…

“IT is also well worth your observation, that the grand contention with us, is, not who shall sing the loudest; but who shall sing the best.”

From “Observe these rules for regulating a Singing-School”:

“The Members should be very punctual in attending at a certain hour, or minute, as the master shall direct, under penalty of a small fine, and if the master should be delinquent, his fine to be double the sum laid upon the scholars—Said fines to be appropriated to the use of the school, in procuring wood, candles, &c…

“All the scholars should submit to the judgment of the master, respecting the part they are to sing; and if he should think fit to remove them from one part to another, they are not to contradict, or cross him in his judgment; but they do well to suppose it is to answer some special purpose…

“No unnecessary conversation, whispering, or laughing, to be practised; for it is not only indecent, but very impolitic; it being needless expense of time, and instead of acquiring to themselves respect, they render themselves ridiculous and contempable in the eyes of all serious people…

“Much more might be said; but the rest I shall leave to the Master’s direction, and your own discretion, heartily wishing you may reap both pleasure and profit, in this your laudable undertaking.”

Sounds of Holy Week from St. Thomas

The Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City is renowned for its music, but here are a few non-musical highlights from Holy Week:

From Tenebrae: The Strepitus

Tenebrae is the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows,” and refers to the ancient monastic practice of keeping vigil with song and prayer during the last three nights of Holy Week.  One of the features of this service is the gradual extinguishing of candles, so that the church becomes darker as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross becomes nearer.  Shortly after the final candle extinguished, loud noise called the “strepitus” is made; this noise recalls the earthquake and the rending of the Temple veil at the moment of Jesus’ death.

This “loud noise” can be as simple as dropping a heavy book or slamming a door (or, for that matter, a piano lid).  As often as not it falls to the music person to generate the strepitus; if it is to be done well, it can tap one’s deepest creative reserves.  In my years as a music director my various strepiti have involved bass drums, gongs, clappers, hammers, two-by-fours, cymbals, handbells, and even an autoharp (don’t ask).  So I was especially interested to hear what they do at St. Thomas—I think that you’ll agree that it’s quite dramatic.

Listen to it here.

From Maundy Thursday: The Stripping of the Altar

From the explanation of the liturgy on the church’s website:  “Then, after the altar has been left naked, the Rector emerges, and, by pouring from two cruets, he creates small puddles of water and wine in places on the surface of the altar that represent the wounds of Christ. He then scrubs the altar using a bundle of dried palms from Palm Sunday, a link to the triumphant arrival in Jerusalem that in days became tragedy. When he is finished loudly scrubbing, he tosses the bundle of palms aside, and the choir immediately stops singing, and all the lights are suddenly out, and the church is left in darkness as choristers run through the church, scattering themselves in frightened flight. The bare altar is left alone and abandoned.”

Listen to it here.

You can listen to these services in their entirety as well as all of the sung Holy Week and Easter services by visiting the St. Thomas webcast archive here