Stirring Settings of Simeon’s Song

St. Placid Priory garden, February 16, 2014

St. Placid Priory garden, February 16, 2014

I always cherish the time around the first week of February — true midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Pacific Northwest, with its mild climate, little green shoots start to appear, even as snow flurries come and go. This midpoint between December 21 and March 21 has for millenia been marked by special celebrations honoring the transition from darkness to light, death to birth, or hibernation to emergence. Events to honor this transition include the pagan Imbolc, the Icelandinc Þorrablót, and the recounting of Persephone’s annual release from Hades. The Christian feast of Candlemas on February 2, which commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple forty days after Christmas, incorporates many of the elements of these midwinter celebrations.

I have written previously about the Feast of the Presentation, and the Nunc Dimittis, which is the Gospel Canticle associated with Compline. In January and February, I was a participant in performances that included two  very different, but stunningly beautiful settings of this text.

rachmaninoffIn January, Choral Arts Northwest performed the All-night vigil by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). The Nunc Dimittis is contained within Great Vespers, which is the first part of the all-night vigil. About this  setting, I quote from Seattle conductor and musicologist Gary Cannon (who also participated in this performance), from his essay on the work:

“In the fifth movement the tenor gets a more extended role, and indeed it is a specific character, that of Simeon in the New Testament. He was the old man who met the infant Jesus in the temple and declared, as had been prophesied that he would, that this was the savior. In this prayer, known in the West as the ‘Nunc dimittis,’ Simeon declares his readiness for death. Surrounding the soloist’s Kievan chant, the slow, steady pace of the altos and tenors could be interpreted as either a gentle lullaby, the tolling of bells, or the gait of an old man. Liturgically, at this point children enter the church and are laid on the ground, after which the priest raises them up to their parents. The movement closes with the basses descending to an extraordinarily low bottom B-flat. When Rachmaninov first played this section for Nikolai Danilin (1878–1945), who was to conduct the premiere, the maestro’s response was: ‘Where on earth are we going to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.’ Years later the composer confirmed: ‘I knew the voices of my countrymen.’ He had hoped that this movement would be played at his funeral, a wish which was unfortunately not realized.”

In this performance, from Choral Arts Northwest’s concert at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle on January 14, 2017, the tenor soloist is Les Green:

(Orthodox Church Slavonic)
Nyne otpushchayeshi raba Tvoego, Vladyko, po glagolu Tvoyemu s mirom
yako videsta ochi moi spaseniye Tvoye,
ezhe esi ugotoval pred litsem vsekh lyudei,
svet vo otkrovenie yazykov,
i slavu lyudei Tvoikh Izrailya.

(English translation)
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.

choral-arts-olympia

Choral Arts Northwest singing the Rachmaninoff All-night Vigil in the State Capitol Rotunda, Olympia WA

howellsOn February 19, 2017, the Compline Choir combined with the Senior Choristers from St Mark’s Cathedral to sing one of our rare SATB services (the intent is to sing once every two years). For the Nunc Dimitis, we sang a setting in D by the English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), which he wrote for the Cathedral Church Of The Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester, in 1946.

In the last section at the words “As it was in the beginning,” the trebles rise to a high “A,” producing the climactic moment of the piece. In his essay “A ‘Wholly New Chapter’ in Service Music: Collegium regale and the Gloucester Service” in The Music of Herbert Howells (ed. by Cooke and Maw: Boydell Press, 2013), Phillip A. Cooke writes, “The effect of this passage is truly spell-binding, and it is one of the great moments in the Anglican musical canon. This is a representation of ‘Christ in his glory and majesty…it is Howells at his most powerful and transcendental…”

For this February 19th Office of Compline, the choirs were accompanied on the organ by Michael Kleinschmidt, Canon Musician, and directed by Jason Anderson, Compline Choir Director. The senior choristers were prepared  by Rebekah Gilmore, Associate Musician & Choir School Director, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
Is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Ring Out, Wild Bells

Compline Choir member Gregory Bloch writes the following guest post about his wonderful arrangement; make sure you scroll down to listen!

*****

On New Year’s Day, 2017, the hymn for the service of compline at Saint Mark’s was “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” to the tune Deus Tuorum Militum, in an arrangement for choir and bells by yours truly.

It is a combination of text and music that first appeared in my favorite hymnal, Songs of Praise, Enlarged Edition published in 1931, and co-edited by certified musical giant Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin “All things bright and beautiful” Shaw, and superstar of the early 20th-century liturgical revival Percy Dearmer. It is a hymnal with explicit ambitions to improve the moral and intellectual life of the entire British nation. “We ourselves have borne well in mind,” writes Dearmer, “the fact that our churches, both Anglican and Free Church, have alienated during the last half-century much of the strongest character and intelligence of the Nation by the use of weak verse and music.” And later: ” If the Churches are to recover during the present century the ground which was lost during the last, much will depend on the hymn-books used.” The editors thus selected hymns for Songs of Praise based on criteria of poetic quality foremost — its goal was to present to every churchgoer, week after week, “that heritage, [which] is ours by right, of the great poetry in which the English language is supreme.” Gradually, Dearmer believed, the tastes of the whole nation would be elevated until “in the future, intelligent men [sic] will be able to take up a hymn-book and read it with as much interest and appreciation as any other collection of poetry.”

songsofpraisejacket

It didn’t quite work out that way, although Songs of Praise has given us several hymns and harmonizations which have endured, and many which deserve to be better known.{1} The hymnal the co-editors produced feels like no other, containing texts far more (for lack of a better term) “sophisticated” than anything one would find in a hymnal today, including texts by Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Algernon Swinborne, Emily Brontë, Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, G.K. Chesterton, John Masefield, and a truly bizarre hymn cobbled together from lines of Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!”

Which brings us to “Ring out, wild bells,” with text by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The hymn is a selection of stanzas from one of Tennyson’s masterpieces, In Memoriam A.H.H., a book-length exploration of the poet’s grief at the death of his beloved college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It is the poem in which the phrase “nature, red in tooth and claw” appears. Here is the hymn as it appears in Songs of Praise (with notes for my bell arrangement in pencil):

ringwildhymnal

While looking through the hymnal sometime back in September, the phrases “ancient forms of party strife” “false pride in place and blood” and “the civic slander and the spite” seemed… urgently contemporary.

When I sat down to write out an arrangement, I decided to omit the “grief the saps the mind” verse, and replaced it with Tennyson’s original second stanza, which the hymnal omits:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going let [it] go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

(In both this verse and the first verse I changed Tennyson’s poetic “him” to “it,” to prevent any misunderstanding on the part of the congregation who did not have the text in front of them.) The entire long poem consists of quatrains like these, with their unusual ABBA rhyme scheme, a form which is today referred to as an “In Memoriam stanza”; in Dearmer’s words, the pattern “produces an impressive ‘circular’ movement.” The haunting opening stanzas of the poem also appear as a hymn in “Songs of Praise,” paired with Gibbons’ “Song 5”:

 

inmemoriamopening3

Astute regular listeners to the Compline Choir may have noticed our hand bells were silent for some time this summer, but have been used quite a bit in the last few months. This is because the Cathedral’s beloved and unique bells were sent out to a specialist to be restored and retuned. The bells were cast in 1965 by the Dutch foundery of Petit & Fritsen, a company founded in 1660 and still in the hands of the original family — but which no longer produces hand bells, rendering our bells now literally irreplaceable.

Since their return, it struck me that, for as much use as the bells get by all the choirs at the Cathedral, we typically only use a few bells from the middle octaves. We almost never take advantage of the fact that the set includes five complete octaves, from C3 to C8. For this bell-themed hymn, and to ring in the new year, I set out to use the full range of bells, including the lowest bell in the set, C3, here held by Compline Choir baritone James Wilcox, who rang it in the service:

james-and-the-c-bell

The refurbishment of the bells was made possible by a generous gift from a member of the Saint Mark’s community, to whom the arrangement is dedicated. After hearing the hymn sung in the New Year’s Day compline service (and despite an unfortunate missed cue before stanza 4), she wrote me to say that the hymn “made me feel hopeful for the year we are in.” I hope you enjoy it as well.

[Editor’s note – the missed cue before stanza 4 has been edited out]

alfredgarethjones

____________

{1} Notably, “Morning has broken,” an unlikely hit for Cat Stevens decades later, was commissioned by the editors from poet Eleanor Farjeon, to carry an old tune in an unusual poetic meter. The obscure but excellent hymn from Songs of Praise, “Ah! think not ‘the Lord delayeth’” with a text by Percy Dearmer himself, was sung by the Compline Choir in the service of December 4, 2016.

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New year, new season, thoughts on mercy

advent-candlesAdvent and Christmas have come and gone once again. Yesterday was January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, and I took the ornaments off the tree which we keep up all through the twelve days of Christmas. Then it was off to a birthday dinner for my youngest daughter, who was born on this feast day 28 years ago. It was especially festive this year, because she is going to give birth in the spring to a son – my first grandchild.

Today the artificial tree will come down and be packed away for next year. But perhaps because of my daughter’s journey to become a mother, I can’t let go of a season that is so full of expectation and hope. So while I pack up the symbols of the season gone by, I am still engaged with the things I have seen and heard over the last month – several of which I want to share with you.

Around the second week of December, I attended our annual Saturday day retreat at St. Placid Priory, where I am an Oblate. This year the theme was Advent Mercy, to coincide with the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis. One of the highlights of the retreat for me was watching a five-minute video made by Marilyn Freeman, another Oblate, who is a media artist and writer. Her “cinema divina” presents an opportunity for contemplation in the same way that “lectio divina” uses a spiritual text, which calls for deep listening, awakening to specific words or phrases that resonate, and mulling over and expanding the themes presented. Click on the following link to Marilyn’s site to start the video:

Mercy

One of the highlights of Compline during Advent was  singing of Peter Hallock’s setting of the hymn Rorate caeli desuper, which he wrote for the Compline Choir in 2008. The words speak of the desolation of the times and the hope that comfort is on the way. It’s a longing that, no matter what the time, never loses its relevance.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.
Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just One.

Ne irascaris Domine, ne ultra memineris iniquitatis:
Be not angry, O Lord, and remember no longer our iniquity:

ecce civitas Sancti facta est deserta: Sion deserta facta est: Jerusalem desolata est:
behold the city of thy sanctuary is become a desert, Sion is made a desert, Jerusalem is desolate.

Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus:
Be comforted, be comforted, my people;

Quia innovavit te dolor?
Why hath sorrow seized thee?

Noli timere, salvabo te; ego enim sum Dominus Deus tuus.
Fear not, I will save thee; for I am the Lord thy God.

Consolamini
Be comforted

xmas-night-1

In 2016 both Christmas and New Year’s Day were on Sundays, and Compline at Christmas was made very special by having the whole service done in candlelight. You can listen to the service, which had several anthems, at this link.

All the best in 2017 from the Compline Underground!

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There is a River

After Compline, First Sunday of Advent 2016

After Compline, First Sunday of Advent 2016

I’m writing this on what we Christians in the Western tradition celebrate as the last day of the Christian year. It is the day before the first of four Sundays of Advent, the time of waiting and expectation before Christmas.

It’s probable that for many Western Christians, even those who belong to a “liturgical” church, the turning of the new year has little significance, especially when it has to compete with other demands – such as the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush, and planning (and dreading?) the added tasks of Christmas preparation.

Add to this the aftermath of a very bitter and divisive election in the U.S., and it’s entirely possible to be sidetracked from thinking about Advent at all. If this is the case for you, I highly recommend reading a very insightful and inspiring post by Jim Friedrich, in his blog The Religious Imagineer. In it he suggests seven spiritual practices that can help us in such times of trial – practices in the form of verbs, like pray, love, serve, and hope. Save the link for your reflection over the next month.

Meanwhile, Compline goes on from week to week in Seattle, a “very present help in time of trouble.” Throughout the remainder of the season since Pentecost the choir has sung many pieces of stirring music to insightful texts. We celebrated our 60th anniversary last August with a weekend of activities for both active choir members and alumni. The Compline Service on August 14 was sung by a choir of about forty, including a performance of the Biebl Ave Maria (listen to the podcast here). All of our services are available for listening any time at http://complinepodcast.org.

At Compline on the last Sunday of the church year, we sang Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength,” in a setting by our choir’s founder and director, Peter Hallock (1924-2014). I recalled the phrase “there is a river,” from the psalm when reading the first reading from the Catholic Mass for today, the last day of the year. It is from Apocolypse (or the Book of Revelation) Chapter 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

May this psalm bring you peace, healing, and strength, as you go forward in faith, hope, and love:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown;
God shall help her at the break of day.

The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken;
God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.

The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Come now and look upon the works of the LORD,
what awesome things he has done on earth.

It is he who makes war to cease in all the world;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, then, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

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Summer Highlights – A Dream Realized

Before the beginning of Compline, 7-24-2016

Before the beginning of Compline, 7-24-2016

Fifty years ago, I first heard a recording of the Serenade For Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op. 31 (1943), by the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It began a love affair with the piece, which bore fruit this summer in an arrangement of one of its melodies for the Compline Service at St. Mark’s Cathedral.

My most memorable hearing of the Serenade was in the spring of 1977 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in London’s South Bank Centre, in a Britten tribute concert. The tenor soloist was Peter Pears (1910-1986), Britten’s lifelong companion, and it was his first concert appearance since Britten’s death the previous December; when he walked on the stage, the audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. I will never forget how clear his voice was, even in his late 60s – every word distinguishable to me in my cheap balcony seat. It was always a dream of mine to sing the piece, and I eventually performed it in a house concert in the early 1990s, with horn and piano.

The Serenade is a cycle of six songs with a prelude / postlude played by solo horn using its natural harmonics. As stated in an article on the piece, the songs are “a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects.” With my love of Compline and its “end of the day” aesthetic, it is no wonder that this cycle became one of my favorites. In particular, the melody of the first song, “Pastoral,” captivated me. Listen to this recording from 1946, performed by Pears and horn player Dennis Brain, who inspired Britten to write the cycle:

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

One day it occurred to me that the stanza structure of the “Pastoral” was the same as the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum, or “Before the ending of the day.” Also, the beginning melody of the song was in the Phrygian Mode (think of a scale from E to octave E on the piano), as are many of the chants that we sing at Compline. So when I was asked to direct the Compline Service on July 24, 2016, I decided to do an arrangement of the Compline Hymn based on the Britten melody. The first verse is in unison, the second in three parts, and the third in four parts:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
that with thy wonted favour thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
from nightly fears and fantasies;
tread under foot our ghostly foe,
that no pollution we may know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally. Amen.

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Summer highlights – The Road Home

 

Van Gogh early drawing

Vincent Van Gogh, early drawing

As summer comes to an end, I’m writing a series of posts about some of the wonderful music sung at Compline over the past couple of months.

One of these memorable moments came on Sunday, July 10, 2016. It was the end of another difficult news week, with the killings of African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana, and the murder of five Dallas police officers. We entered into the Compline Service in a somber mood, and I was particularly moved by the simple recitation of Psalm 25 in plainchant – it seemed very calming and centering (here’s a link to the whole podcast).

Jason Anderson, director of the choir, had very astutely replaced the scheduled anthem with The Road Home, by American composer Stephen Paulus (1949-2014). Stephen had been commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers to write an arrangement of an American folk melody, and he chose the tune “The lone wild bird” from the collection Southern Harmony (1835), with new words by Michael Dennis Browne. Here is a link to more information about the piece.

Like the psalm, the words were very grounding and calming for me, focusing me on my spiritual home – calm in the storms of life that assault us daily. We need this calm center, but “not,” as the prayer says, “for solace only, but for strength” as we pursue social justice here at home.


Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home?

After wind, after rain,
When the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day,
Through the air there’s a calling
From far away,
There’s a voice I can hear
That will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong;
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.

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Remembering Orlando

Candles in front of altar

At Compline last Sunday, we prayed for the victims who died in Orlando, Florida that morning. Before the service, the Peace Bell tolled fifty times while members of the Compline Choir placed fifty candles on the altar steps. Then a response and collect for the dead were sung, followed by the Kontakion for the Departed sung in procession. I have excerpted here the last three tollings of the bell, followed by the prayers:

The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The Lord is the strength of my life: And my salvation
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.

Let us pray.
O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of the fifty persons slaughtered in Orlando, and grant them an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth,
and to earth shall we return.
For so did you ordain,
when you created me saying,
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
All of us go down to the dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Later in the service we sang a lovely hymn, which combined a text by Albert F. Bayly (1901-1984) with the tune “St. Helena,” by Calvin Hampton (1938-1984):

Lord, whose love through humble service bore the weight of human need,
who upon the cross, forsaken, offered mercy’s perfect deed,
we, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart,
consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.

Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread;
still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.
As, dear Lord, your deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul,
use the love your Spirit kindles still to save and make us whole.

As we worship, grant us vision, ’til your love’s revealing light,
in its height and depth and greatness, dawns upon our quickened sight,
making known the needs and burdens your compassion bids us bear,
stirring us to tireless striving, your abundant life to share.

For the whole podcast from this memorable evening, which included Peter Hallock’s setting of Psalm 13, and “Salvator Mundi” (1599) by the Venetian composer Giovanni Bassano, click here.

[On June 15, 2016, a vigil service was held at St. Mark’s Cathedral, after which there was a procession to St. James Cathedral. For more information, see the St. Mark’s website or the website for The Compline Choir].

Candles - side

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