The Choir Corner: Epiphany, Lent and Easter

David Williamson, Choirmaster and Organist

David Williamson, Choirmaster and Organist

Looking at Hymn 135, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” one notices that this is a seasonal hymn addressing the themes of this Epiphany season. The repetition of "manifest" reminds us of the manifestation of Christ to all, not just the descendants of Israel. It covers the Baptism of Christ and the Transfiguration, which are the focus of the first and last Sundays after Epiphany. The wedding at Cana is also alluded to for those years with a longer Epiphany in which we hear in the lectionary Jesus’ first miracle. The tune name is "Salzburg," harmonized by Bach, representing some of the best hymnody in the German/Dutch/Swiss Protestant tradition.

Contrasting to this is Hymn 448, "O Love how deep, how broad, how high," which is used extensively in both the Lenten and Easter seasons, and usually several times in the Season after Pentecost. The allusion to the Love of God is obvious in the title, and regardless of the season, it sometimes is the most cohesive choice for coordinating with the Collect, Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel of a given Sunday. The Tune is "Deus tuorum militum," alluding to the original Latin text, "O God of your soldiers." It is French in origin, written just after the death of Bach, and represents the "new school" of Roman Catholic hymnody that emerged as a result of the Counter Reformation.

A Note from Peter (March 2017)

With the 2017 Speaker Series this weekend and Nativity hosting Happening #85 the following weekend, one could be excused for forgetting that Ash Wednesday is March 1! But indeed it is, and so, at 12:05 and 5:30pm we will gather to pray for the world; to have ashes imposed on our foreheads; and for the invitation, once again, “to the observance of a Holy Lent.”

For the last ten years, my observance of Lent has always included listening to the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. This massive work of classical music recounts and reflects upon the story of the last supper, Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was originally written to be performed on Good Friday in the church where Bach served as church musician. Truly, this is a piece of classical music meant to be an act of worship. It is crushingly beautiful, and at times inspiring, mournful, and surprisingly joyful in places. Each Lent, it allows me to dwell deeply in the story of our Lord’s suffering and death and his love for us.

My hope, this Lent, is to share that gift with you all in an adult forum class I’m calling “Bible Study with Bach.” We’ll read together Matthew 26 and 27, pausing periodically to watch a performance of the Passion from the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. In the performance, you get a sense for Bach’s own spirituality, how he interprets the biblical text, and what he thinks it all means. And just like reading scripture with any other friend, how Bach reads the story might shape how you read the story. These days, when I read of Judas giving back the money for which he betrayed Jesus, I hear the depth of his repentance that Bach puts into music. When I think of Peter in the garden denying Jesus, I hear the mourning that Bach puts into Peter’s voice. Two years ago, my entire Palm Sunday sermon was inspired by the music Bach composed for two words St. Matthew wrote: “wept bitterly.”

I’ll be assisted in this undertaking by our friend Ben Arnold, assistant professor of music at MVSU and known to many as a bookseller at Turnrow. St. Matthew Passion moves me on a deep level, but when it comes to talking music history and theory, I get out of my depth very quickly. I am grateful to Ben for helping me out in that department. In addition, David Williamson has given an introduction to Bach and the Passion elsewhere in this newsletter. As David points out, all of you already know music from the St. Matthew Passion. It’s in our hymnal, and it’s in a lot of weddings too!

This offering begins March 19 and will continue through Easter Day. Whether you’re a big music lover or not, why not take this Lent and this opportunity to spend a little more time with the story that makes all the difference in the world?