Simple [melodies] are the best, and the most sublime; very few of the more intricate tunes are really musical. Your twists, and [your] fugues, and [your] repetitions, and [your] rattlings up and down the scale, are mostly barbarous noise-makings, fitter for Babel than [for] Bethel. If you … wish to show off your excellent voices, [why not] meet at home for that purpose[? But] the [Lord’s Day] and the church of God must not be desecrated to so poor an end.
Charles Spurgeon, “How Shall We Sing?,” The Sword and the Trowel (June 1, 1870), 277
Having grown up in the Church, I have been church singing all my life, often in a choir. I have been singing in my current church choir for over ten years now. Right after I joined, and after I had left for the summer, the choir director/organist left the church, and I still don’t fully understand why. But when I returned from my summer hiatus I discovered the choir was reduced from probably 25 members to 8 or so. And the recent choir members left the church as well. I was shocked.
We had a wonderful interim organist/choir director. He was serious about singing good music, annunciating well, and doing what was necessary to aid worship. In retrospect I see that he also encouraged us to become a cohesive group. I listened, and in my own way I did what I thought I could to do to help that effort. Then our Mary came. Mary is an incredibly talented pianist and musician. If you heard her play the organ you would think she was also trained in organ as well.
I don’t think Mary had much education in choral music, but her husband did, and he came to ALL of our rehearsals. (Both of them graduated from Julliard). They were quite the team! Tim was focused, but also had a wonderful sense of humor. Mary, was just steady and amazing in her accompaniment and also directing. I could not fathom how she could play some of that complicated accompaniment and yet lift a hand to give us a cue. Mary is shy and quiet, and Tim had a dry and quick sense of humor. Tim also came to all of our bell rehearsals, and taught all of us how to play the dang things.
In the last 5 years or so Mary was the recipient of numerous and frequent complaints about music choices, speed of hymns, and even suggestions that she not play the organ any more. But we kept singing, often singing classic worship music almost no one sings any more. It was such a blessing to me, and I hope to others as well. I sang so much music I had admired, but never imagined I would ever sing.
Mary is leaving in two weeks. She and the family are moving back to Florida. I, and my choir members (all 5 of us) are devastated. I plan to go back to Georgia for our last rehearsal and worship service. I don’t know, but I think probably this will be the end of our choir, and the end of the organ during the service. I am sad, but also very grateful.
Intentional memorizing has always been difficult for me. But sometimes when I lie awake during the night I remember the words to hymns, quite often all of the words. Last night it was this one that came to mind. It must have been a favorite of my father because we frequently sang it in church. Like many hymns it is best when sung in its entirety.
The phrase I first remembered last night was “Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith as its beginning; set our hearts at liberty.” Newer hymn books have substituted “Take away our love of sinning” for “take away our bent to sinning”. I don’t like it. It does not mean the same thing. “Bent” reminds me that I am by nature twisted away from purity and truth, and I need help getting straight before I understand sin at all. Important also, when I remember I lean toward sin I can be proactive and preventative. Not all sin I commit is directly caused by my “love of sinning”.
What grace is mine that He who dwells in endless light Called through the night to find my distant soul And from His scars poured mercy that would plead for me That I might live and in His name be known
So I will go wherever He is calling me I lose my life to find my life in Him I give my all to gain the hope that never dies I bow my heart take up my cross and follow Him
What grace is mine to know His breath alive in me Beneath His wings my wakened soul may soar All fear can flee for death’s dark night is overcome My Savior lives and reigns for evermore
So I will go wherever He is calling me I lose my life to find my life in Him I give my all to gain the hope that never dies I bow my my heart take up my cross and follow Him I bow my heart take up my cross and follow Him
1 Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light, and usher in the morning; O shepherds, shrink not with affright, but hear the angel’s warning. This Child, now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be; the pow’r of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making. 2 Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light, to herald our salvation; He stoops to earth–the God of might, our hope and expectation. He comes in human flesh to dwell, our God with us, Immanuel; the night of darkness ending, our fallen race befriending.
Yesterday our music director, Dr. Mary McKee played a familiar Bach tune as the postlude. Here is her music note about the arrangement:
“The postlude is a majestic and exuberant arrangement of “Now Thank We All Our God” by J. S. Bach which he wrote for his Cantata No. 79. Virgil Fox, the flamboyant concert organist, then took Bach’s setting and adapted it for organ. The original tune heard in fragments on the bold solo stops can’t be missed over Bach’s countermelody. ”
Our neighborhood Episcopal church also heard the same piece of music yesterday because their music director, Mary’s husband, Dr. Tim McKee, also played it. The two organs are quite different, the one at St. Peter’s is a wonderful pipe organ, unlike ours, which is a very nice electric one. The music is glorious!
Here are links to both streamed services, with the time stamps for the postludes.
We need hymns that burn the character of God into our hearts and minds. We need hymns that are actually about the truth of the gospel; while we were dead in our sins, unable to save ourselves, God stepped in and gave us Jesus. We need hymns that do not ignore the depravity of the human condition, and point to our hope in Christ. And we need hymns that are actually hymns, not vapid radio songs written for mass consumption. Hymns written by people who actually understand the history of Christian worship.
That’s why I’ve increasingly found myself eschewing anything new in favor of the riches of older strains of hymnody. I’ll gladly make exceptions when new hymns appear that are beautiful and theologically rich in their own right. Until then, I’ll just stick with the jewels we’ve inherited from the past generations. Heck, some of them have fallen so far out of our collective memory, they might seem new all over again!
I watched a BBC production of Christ Church Choir today which included a brief interview with Dr. Allan Chapman, a science historian, of Wadham College. At one point he was asked “What would you say is the value of faith through your general life?” His answer, “Utterly fundamental.”
Immediately my mind remembered C. S. Lewis’s comment, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Today my sister, Ruth, handed me this book, with a post-it sticker that said “Annita”. She knows I enjoy old books. I’m not sure if she recognized the author from our hymnbook in Ashaway. But I did. From our old brown hymnbook, The Service Hymnal : “Take My Life, and Let It Be”; “Lord, Speak to Me”; “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?”; “True-Hearted, Whole-Hearted”; and “I Gave My Life for Thee.” There are only two more, which I do not remember singing. My Dad, obviously liked the ones I remember.
The book is well organized and I know I will enjoy it. The index in the forward is also interesting. It is divided into topics such as “Ministry of Song” and “Early Poems”. I love that it includes dates and often where it was written.
Down near the bottom, “Hidden in Light” was written in Harlech. (thinking about those Men of Harlech).