This story begins with a service of Choral Evensong. The occasion was the Annual Conference of the Association of Anglican Musicians (AAM) this past summer in Washington, D. C.
I was very pleased to serve as the organist for this particular service -- and I say very pleased, because my current work does not allow me to tend to my organ playing as much as I used to. As an Assistant Organist (which I served as in an Episcopal congregation from 2002-2004, a Lutheran congregation from 2004-2006, and an Episcopal cathedral from 2006-2010) one's domain is almost exclusively the organ, with a major emphasis on accompanying. I honed these skills as best I could, but it wasn't until my work at Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, that I really come to understand the finer points of choral accompanying on the organ.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that I relish these opportunities to accompany, in any setting, because they are a kind of homecoming. More than that, they allow me the rare opportunity take a back seat and observe the work of other (usually far superior) conductors, with different music.
“Truly the Lord is in this place. This is no other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.”
The Introit for the AAM Evensong was "Truly the Lord is in this place" by English composer Bernard Barrell (1919-2005).
Barrell is not a major composer. His name appears in the Grove Dictionary of Music but only in the entry for his wife. The entry for English composer Joyce Howard Barrell says: "In 1945 she married the composer Bernard Barrell and in 1946 they settled in Suffolk."
I had prepared the accompaniment for this Introit, but there wasn't much to it. Some four-note cluster chords in the Lydian mode (F-G-A-B), and a few other places where the organ seemed to very closely follow the voices. Easy peasy. There were other things -- a busy evening service, the psalm, the anthem, and a Howells premiere -- to occupy my time. On to the next thing.
As the service drew closer I reminded myself that I would need to not short-change this piece, it being the easiest. I checked my notes, my registrations. I also paid special attention to the rhythm of the choral parts (all quarter notes, like the organ part) since the choir would be in the liturgical west end of the church for this, while the organ would dutifully remain in the east end. There would be no sightlines. I would have to keep it together with the choir without seeing the conductor. No problem, I thought.
And so, the pre-service rehearsal arrived, the first time I had heard the choir.
We began the piece, and then something remarkable happened. This simple, short little anthem, that I hadn't really expected much of, expanded into something so rich and beautiful that I didn't think it possible.
You see, I had neglected to play through the choral parts. But even if I had, I'm not sure that I would have been fully aware of the rich harmonic alchemy that Barrell had designed in combination with the organ. It really is quite something; it is the very definition of "more than the some of its parts".
And this is exactly the kind of setting that you need for the words from Genesis 28:17.
Truly the Lord is in this place. This is no other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.
These are beautiful words. We heard them this summer in the lectionary readings on July 20 (Proper 11A, track 1).
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.
In context, the words become even richer. The imagery is of dreams, promise, covenant, numerous descendants, promised land, etc.
When we sing this in our churches, we evoke these things. Our dreams, God's promises, our communion with the saints, and more.
Our worship is all of these things. Like this music by Barrell, it should be more than the sum of it's parts.
We only need to listen fully and be amazed.
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