Easter 2024

31 October 2015
Organist - The

A lot of people wonder what it's like to take a new job as a church organist.

It's exactly as you see in this wonderful 44-minute independent film on YouTube: The Organist.

Enjoy. Oh, and happy Halloween.

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24 October 2015
Evensong - finding the love of

From the storied Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, England, comes an argument for the primacy of the daily office: Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer).

[The services of Matins and Evensong] are made out of layers of tradition which are much older. The medieval services drew on the patterns and content of worship in Christian churches of the first centuries. They in turn drew on the worship of the Jewish synagogues, which themselves depended on the traditional Jewish scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament.

Service Booklet. Introductory Note, p. 2. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.

Having placed the services in their historical context, the anonymous author of this introduction (could it possibly be Eric Milner-White?) then elucidates our place in this ancient pattern.

It follows that we need to do two things in order to enter into the spirit of these services. First we have to be patient and relaxed enough to allow a long tradition to have its say. Then we should allow our own thoughts and feelings to become closer to us than life outside admits. These two things are not separate. In the tradition there are, along with what is strange, strong expressions of our basic feelings about ourselves and God. And it is precisely the cool and ancient order of the services which gives a space and frame, as well as cues, for reflections on our regrets and hopes and gratitudes. The best analogy of it is in a relation of love. There, as here, we find ourselves by attending to another. So we may learn here a little of what we need and enjoy everywhere.

Service Booklet. Introductory Note, p. 2. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England. Emphasis added.

It's not surprising to find "a relation of love" when we consider the Matins and Evensong liturgies, or really any liturgy of the church. Beauty is both intrinsic to and the goal of liturgy.

John O'Donohue, quoted on this blog earlier this month in Evensong - the surrender to, remarks on the human soul's hunger for beauty. "In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act."

This brings immediately to mind these words of Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island: "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." And do we not find and lose ourselves in the experience of love?

O'Donohue goes on to say that at its essence, beauty is love. (And not just any shade of love either, but Eros!)

To awaken and surrender. To find and lose. When we surrender and lose ourselves in the historic, authentic liturgy of the church, we awaken to love. One needs only to look to Christian hymnody to see what a archetypal spiritual image this is.

Perhaps the most famous words in this vein are those by John Newton

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

A lesser-known hymn by Elizabeth Cosnett (b. 1936) gets at the contradiction in trying to "find" God.

Can we by searching find out God
or formulate his ways?
Can numbers measure what he is
or words contain his praise?

Although his being is too bright
for human eyes to scan,
his meaning lights our shadowed world
through Christ, the Son of Man.

Our boastfulness is turned to shame,
our profit counts as loss,
when earthly values stand beside
the manger and the cross.

We may there recognize his light,
may kindle in its rays,
find there the source of penitence,
the starting-point of praise.

There God breaks in upon our search,
makes birth and death his own;
he speaks to us in human terms
to make his glory known.

An anonymous 19th century hymn also gets at the paradox of finding the One who finds

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

And in one of the grandest lines of hymnody, by the great Charles Wesley, we see that the goal of all this spiritual hide and seek is really so that we can lose ourselves in the beauty that is the subject and object of our worship.

Finish then thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee:
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

And so it is with Evensong. If we attend to Evensong "in a relation of love", the great tradition of beauty which permeates this service will awaken us and cause us to surrender in the same act.

Evensong, in a noisy, demanding world, offers something rare. Our churches should offer it, and our congregations should be encouraged to cherish it.

Evensong should be loved.

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23 October 2015
Parratt, Walter - on the organ

Use your full organ rarely and never long at a time; the pedals also should be held in reserve for great effects; do not keep the manuals constantly coupled. Many players couple the Swell organ with reeds to the Great at once, and never allow the diapasons–the glory of the organ–to be heard alone. It must be constantly remembered that organ tone, from its sustained character, is fatiguing to listen to and requires perpetual, but not restless, change and variety. Keep your pedals near your hands, and do not play too much on the lower octave. Use the swell-pedal with discretion, not with jerks, and not too often. Above all remember that rhythm is, perhaps, the most attractive constituent of music, and that it is not at all easy to mark accent and phrasing upon the organ. The old habit of tying all notes common to successive chords is now fast vanishing, to the great benefit organ playing. Do not play your Bach too fast, and remember that the large pipes have columns of air which are not set in motion very quickly. Be sparing in full chords; few organists can resist any chance of playing five notes with each hand if possible.

"Mr. Parratt on the Organ". Musical Herald. 1 February 1892.

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22 October 2015
MacMillan, James - on silence

(h/t Jessica Nelson)

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20 October 2015
Nelson, Jessica - Advent/Christmas anthem top ten list

So last week, when we were all watching the consecration of Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, there was a wonderful anthem by David Hurd.

Then this happened on Twitter

And then, this:

So, today, we welcome Jessica Nelson, guest blogger, with a top ten list (in no particular order) of her favorite carols and anthems for Advent and Christmas.

  1. Philip Stopford, Lully, Lulla, Lullay (pub. Hal Leonard)

    This makes me have all the feelings. Minimalism & some sexy suspensions, but not so long that it gets tedious.

  2. Jan Sandström, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (pub. Gehrmans, Stockholm)

    It's like a modern choral chorale prelude. A post-modern take on Praetorius. Some really good prickly moments. I first heard this on a recording from Clare College that my fourth-favorite alto lent me. She has now been promoted to third-favorite alto.

  3. James MacMillan, O radiant dawn (pub. Boosey & Hawkes)

    My favorite of the Strathclyde Motets. Furthermore, I could listen to James MacMillan read his grocery list all day long. He is also not terrible to look at. AND! You can follow him on the Twitter @jamesmacm.

  4. Richard Felciano, The Eyes of All Hope in Thee, O Lord, (pub. ECS)

    (The title of this YouTube video reads, "...hope in Three, O Lord." I feel like that Means Something.)

    The alleluias remind me of Rejoice in the Lamb, but only a little.

  5. Elizabeth Poston, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (pub. ECS)

    Purely, purely sentimental reasons. Millsaps College Singers. Every single year.

  6. Herbert Howells, A spotless rose (pub. Galaxy, I think?)

    Because it's Howells. And the magnificent text painting. And because it's charm lies in that it's absolutely no longer than it is. It's like a little perfect pearl.

  7. Cesar Carrillo, O magnum mysterium (pub. earthsongs)

    The sonic equivalent of Scotch. It makes you feel warm from the inside out.

  8. Philip Ledger, Advent Calendar (pub. Encore)

    I have been totally smitten with this text by Rowan Williams for a couple of years. This is the best setting of it I've encountered so far. I wish more folks would set it. I think the possibilities are endless.

  9. Abbie Betinis, arr., In the bleak midwinter (pub. Abbie Betinis)

    This, like the Stopford setting of the Coventry Carol, is one of the few settings of either of those carols that isn't overly sentimental, but instead captures the gravitas that those texts really demand. It's just nice to hear someone (and a young female composer, especially!) writing music for Advent/Christmas that isn't like listening to a Thomas Kinkade painting.

  10. David Hurd, A stable lamp is lighted (pub. GIA)

    I think Hurd's writing just so masterfully captures the text. And it's just as much a Palm Sunday text as a Christmas one.

    [Editor's Note: This setting also appears at Hymn 104 in the Hymnal 1982]

Honorable mentions:

Jessica Nelson lives in Tupelo, Mississippi, where she is organist/choirmaster at All Saints' Episcopal Church. In her spare time, she composes a little and watches Netflix a lot. You can follow her on the Twittergram @nelsojl.

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19 October 2015
Star Wars - the liturgical timing of

We've written previously about the the liturgical wisdom of Star Wars film release dates (Wars - Pentecost).

And now, with a new Star Wars film looming, it seems like a good time to take a look at the new film and see if the pattern holds.
Film and yearUS Release DateDay of PentecostPentecost is
Episode IV (1977)25 May29 May4 days after
Episode V (1980)21 May25 May4 days after
Episode VI (1983)25 May22 May3 days before
Episode I (1999)19 May23 May4 days after
Episode II (2002)16 May19 May3 days after
Episode III (2005)19 May15 May4 days before
Episode VII (2015)18 December24 May208 days prior

Hmm. One of these things is not like the other.

Actually, Pentecost of 2016 is closer to the Episode VII's 2015 release date. It's only 149 days afterward. But still, I don't see the significance of that number either.

Perhaps it's time for a new table?
Film and yearUS Release DateO Antiphon
Episode VII (2015)18 DecemberO Adonai

That's better.

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17 October 2015
Howells, Herbert (1892-1983) - SANCTA CIVITAS

Really the word "hymn" refers to the words. But for most people the music comes to mind just as quickly, if not more so.

Of course, a congregation needs both words and music to sing a hymn. Otherwise I guess they could just mumble some poetry together, or, alternatively, hum something for a while.

Note to self: write some intentionally wordless hymns. Approach publishers.

But sometimes a melody is written for words that so encapsulates their sentiment that the result is stirring, compelling, and nothing short of miraculous: a triumph of the great symbiotic art of hymnody.


Walter Russell Bowie's two hymn texts are provocative and "have been judged as among the finest by an American author written in the first half of this century" (Hymnal 1982 Companion). They are "Lord Christ, when first thou cam'st to earth", and "O holy city, seen of John".

Walter Russell Bowie was a Social Gospel progressive who was baptized at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia in 1883 (just 21 years after Jefferson Davis was baptized there). He would serve as rector of the parish from 1911-1923. Just prior to assuming this rectorship, Bowie was asked for a hymn based on Revelation 21 by Henry Sloane Coffin for the collection Hymns of the Kingdom of God (1910). The result is "O holy city, seen of John".

One of Bowie's stanzas, however, seems not to have been handed down in most versions of the hymn. It appears in the original hymn text as stanza 2:

Hark, how from men whose lives are held
more cheap than merchandise;
from women struggling sore for bread,
from little children's cries,
there swells the sobbing human plaint
that bids thy walls arise!


I'm particularly fascinated with the connection between Howells and the marvelous words of Bowie because Howells is, quite simply, my favorite composer of twentieth century church music, and I was the organist of St. Paul's, Richmond for five years (2010-2015). It was a delight to relish this tune (and sing it often) in a parish so closely linked with Bowie.

I have written before about the two Herbert Howells hymn tunes for the both of the published hymn texts of Walter Russell Bowie (Bowie, Walter Russell - connection to Herbert Howells). Mostly, I wrote of my perplexity that the tune in the Hymnal 1982 for Bowie's "Lord Christ" is in a major key (Hymn 598)! But today, on Howells's birthday, no less, I want to turn to the other tune, SANCTA CIVITAS.

Howells's tune, written in 1962, is extraordinary. In fact, Erik Routley, the prolific church music scholar, names it one of "Six Great Moments in Twentieth-century Hymn Music"

  1. Vaughan Williams's KING'S WESTON, found at Hymn 435 (this article refers to hymns in the Hymnal 1982)
  2. Cyril Vincint Taylor's ABBOT'S LEIGH, found at Hymn 523
  3. A tune by Jean Langlais: DIEU NOUS AVONS VU TO GLOIRE (um, does anyone know this one?)
  4. Herbert Howells's SANCTA CIVITAS, found at Hymn 582 (but not completely)
  5. Michael Dawney's FELINFOEL (yeah, no idea about this one either)
  6. And Richard Dirksen's VINEYARD HAVEN, found at Hymns 392 and 557

Tangent: Routley's work on hymns is always provocative. Of the six he names three are "bestsellers", one is mostly hiding in plain sight (Howells), and two of them I've never heard, nor can I find. There's more here to research, as always!

Howells's name for the tune, SANCTA CIVITAS, is Latin for "Holy City," making the text-tune connection clear. But more than that, the name is surely a reference to the large choral work by Vaughan Williams with that name. It was, after all, a close encounter with Vaughan Williams himself at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival that set Howells firmly on the path of being a composer.

Howells manages the melodic modality masterfully, with the music meandering from D minor to an F Major finish. The intervening notes between stanzas (they are in the original hymn but, most unfortunately, edited out of the Hymnal 1982) raise the Tonic to the Mediant so that the successive stanza can fall into place without a hitch.

There is what I believe to be an intentional seamlessness to the hymn accompaniment that arises when these inter-stanza passing tones are used (as in the wonderful recording from St. Clement embedded above). This is up to interpretation, to some degree. I can find another recording that does not treat the accompaniment this way.

If the "seamless" approach is what Howells had in mind, this is by no means a new technique, though it is an innovation on it. Think of the hymn tune ENGELBERG, written by Stanford, Howells's mentor, in 1904. The single, solitary "thump" allows the hymn accompaniment to be continuous, which has the affect of somewhat blurring the line between the strophic hymn form and something through-composed. And this is, in fact, the common modern-day performance practice with this tune. Howells's innovation is to simply expand that pedal thump into a treble "doo-doo" — which, incidentally, builds more time into the "join" between the stanzas for a breath but without making the interlude needlessly fussy.

Still with me? Good, because we haven't even brought up the final stanza yet. Howells gives this text the full treatment with a slightly altered harmonization and supremely musical descant. Not a single note is wasted, and the sopranos' expertise is fully demanded — this is not a trivial sing! But the result, to my ear, is so completely and utterly thrilling.

A melody of great sweep and dignity, with a descant for the final verse [sic] which gives the impression of having been conceived along with the tune and of being a natural efflorescence of it.

English Church Music, Royal School of Church Music, 1965

Consider the final stanza and the city that rises "in the mind of God". It is of divine imagination. And this inspired descant catches our souls and flings them heavenward where we chance to dream of things eschatological and that poorly-understood sentiment in the Lord's Prayer "thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven".

The unchurched Howells finds a way to join what we would call Bowie's Anglo-Catholic Socialism if he weren't in fact a Southern Churchman Social Gospelist.

Another thing that is lost in our modern hymnals is editorial direction. Howells, who never fails to give descriptive language, here gives "With warmth, but moving easily". I can't quibble at all with the St. Clement recording above, but I do want to note that it is a choral recording. I think that for a full congregation, the organ will want to provide a bit more "fire" for the warmth. The word "ardente" from the anthem "Like as the hart" comes to mind.

I suspect that, for many parishes, this tune is hiding in plain sight. If we did a survey I think we would find that the American tune on 583 is sung for these words more than 582. And there is precdent for a Howells tune having a slow start. MICHAEL first appeared in The Clarendon Hymnal in 1936 and was neglected for over thirty years. Though it doesn't appear in Routley's "Six Great Moments", it doesn't need to. It exploded in popularity, and it now has a Triple Platinum Hymnal hanging in its living room.

But perhaps SANCTA CIVITAS tends to be overlooked because the Hymnal 1982 doesn't present the hymn tune as Howells intended.

We can fix this.

I implore you in choirs and on organ benches: buy this hymn from Novello, or play it out of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Your congregations will allow you two little extra notes, I promise.

And Howells wants it that way.

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