Archive for March, 2011

Lord, keep us steadfast

crocus in springThe liturgical season of Lent is a time of quieting the mind and simplifying one’s life.  We do this not only by giving up things that are unessential, but by pursuing new activities that deepen us.  In the Compline Choir, we observe the season by making changes in how we sing parts of the office.  The psalm, hymn, and Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) are often sung in plainsong (simple unison chant).  We also sing the same Orison (sung prayer) at the beginning of Compline each of the weeks of Lent: “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word” (words by Martin Luther, trans. by Catherine Winkworth) — listen to it on our podcast from March 20 (click “Play” — the Orison starts almost immediately). 

This simplification gives us more time to rehearse a more complex anthem, which is sung at the end of the Compline service.  There are many choral compositions appropriate for Lent, especially settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. When Peter Hallock founded the Compline Choir back in the spring of 1956, he had in mind the vocal forces that could sing the Lamentations settings by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) — and for that reason invited a group of men that could sing this piece, set for altos, tenors, and basses only.  We’ll be singing the first of the Tallis Lamentations in April, and then Hallock’s own setting for choir and solo cello on Palm Sunday.  We started Lent by singing a motet by Tallis on the text “In jejunio et fletu“.  The words are from Joel 2, vs. 12 and 17, and were used as a Responsory at the Office of Matins for the First Sunday of Lent.  Here is a link to a performance by several groups, and a translation:

With fasting and weeping, let the priests say: “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thy heritage to destruction.” Let the priests weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people!”

The Second Sunday of Lent the Compline Choir sang the motet “Ne reminiscaris, Domine”, by Jacobus Vaet (ca. 1529 – 1567).  This is a piece not heard very often, as opposed to the “In jejunio”.  It was new to the Compline Choir; Jason Anderson, our director, had made a special edition for us.  What a blessing it is to be a part of a group which is able to meet on a Sunday night, rehearse a new and difficult piece like this, and perform it on live radio an hour-and-a-half later — not perfectly, of course, but with a good degree of credibility.  My favorite part is the ending, where on the words “Thy most precious blood”, there is a change to a slower triple meter — it almost seems like time itself is standing still — a very haunting effect.  (Listen to the podcast from March 20 – the anthem begins at about 19:44).  And the translation:

Remember not, Lord, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins.
Spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood.  And be not angry with us forever.

I’ve also made room in my life so that I can focus on more silence and reflection.  I attended a day-retreat at St. Placid Priory on the first Saturday of Lent, where we spent the day with Morgan Atkinson, who showed his documentary film “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton” (here’s a sample), as well as selections from several other films.  I’ve been subscribing to the daily messages from Abbey of the Arts (see a link on the right), which during Lent are reflections drawn from the writings of the desert fathers and mothers.  I’ve also started submitting sections of my book, Compline Reflections, to a writing coach — a Lenten discipline that I plan to extend through the summer.

May you be steadfast in your observance of this special time of the year, as we enter into Spring and look forward to rebirth and new life.

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Mountain height and deep valley

mount of transfiguration

Mount Tabor, one of the possible sites for the Transfiguration of Jesus

In the last week we have seen the transition in the Western Christian liturgical calendar from the season of Epiphany to that of Lent.  We shift from reckoning the days after the birth of Jesus to looking forward in time to the celebration of his death and resurrection.  Following the last Sunday of Epiphany, Ash Wednesday begins the countdown of forty penitential days before Easter (there are also six Sundays during this time, but they are not counted as days of penitence).

On the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, the readings in the Episcopal Church have as their theme the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Even though there is an official feast day in August for the Transfiguration in the Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican calendars, I always look forward to remembering this event at the end of Epiphany, as well as saying goodbye to the “Alleluia”, which we won’t say or sing again until Easter.

The Transfiguration commemorates the day when Jesus and some of his disciples went up onto a high mountain.  Here Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” and he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah, and God’s voice was heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew Ch. 17).  This event has much in common with Jesus’ baptism (see my posting earlier this year) in that God’s voice is heard, accompanied by dazzling light.  For Christians, it is the “mountaintop experience” analagous to that of the Jewish people receiving Moses’ revelations from Mt. Sinai.  And it is the kind of transforming experience that we need to keep before us as we enter the spare times of Lent, where we strip away much that is superficial in order to focus and prepare for the passion and resurrection of Christ.

At Compline on the Last Sunday of Epiphany we sang many wonderful Transfiguration texts. I hope you have time to listen to them all, but the one I kept singing to myself this week as Lent began was our hymn, “Christ on the mountain peak” (listen to it on our podcast, click the “Play” button – begins at about 9:44):

Christ upon the mountain peak stands alone in glory blazing;
let us, if we dare to speak, with the saints and angels praise him. Alleluia!

Trembling at his feet we saw Moses and Elijah speaking.
All the prophets and the Law shout through them their joyful greeting. Alleluia!

Swift the cloud of glory came. God proclaiming in its thunder
Jesus as his Son by name! Nations cry aloud in wonder! Alleluia!

This is God’s beloved Son!  Law and prophets fade before him;
first and last and only One,  let creation now adore him! Alleluia!

As we move into the season of Lent, let this be our prayer:

O God, who before the passion of your only ­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the Last Sunday of Epiphany, Book of Common Prayer).

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The Seattle Compline Choir and its English roots

Eton Choirbook

Opening of the O Maria salvatoris mater, by John Browne, in the Eton Choirbook (c. 1490)

Before I begin today, I wanted to announce that my new web site is up and running: To get on my mailing list to receive notifications of this blog posting, just go to the “Contact me” page and fill in your email address.  Tell your friends!

I’m posting this on Sunday, March 6.  It’s the last Sunday of Epiphany, but also the first Sunday of the month, and the Renaissance Singers of Seattle are singing Compline tonight at 7:00 p.m., via a live video stream (hope you can watch!).  It was partly a concert of the Renaissance Singers that I attended last week, as well as the arrival of a CD that I had ordered, that prompted me to write about the origins of the Seattle Compline service today.

The Renaissance Singers concert featured music of the Eton Choirbook, a manuscript preserving the repertory of large English churches and collegiate chapels from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  The English had a special musical genre called the “votive antiphon”, a substantial piece of music that was sung in pure devotion, usually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and sung in the Lady Chapel right after Compline.  Listen to the beginning of a typical composition from the Eton Choirbook, a “Salve Regina” by William Cornysh.  Pieces like this are substantial, lasting between 12 – 14 minutes, and are extremely elaborate, with long “athletic” phrases.  I can imagine the whole community of the collegiate church or chapel going off afterward, observing the “great silence”, with this offering of great beauty resounding in their heads, lulling them to sleep.

The CD that arrived in the mail was by the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, and consisted of five pieces from the Peterhouse Partbooks, which preserve the English repertory from a little later, up to 1540, but the votive antiphon was still a large part of the collection.  It’s probable that the partbooks were copied for Canterbury in 1539-40, when it was being converted from a monastery to a Cathedral.  It was during the time of Reformation that the uniquely English service of Evensong was created; this combined Vespers and Compline, and the tradition of singing a beautiful anthem at the end was maintained at Evensong until today.

The founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, studied in 1949-50 at the Royal School of Church Music, which at the time was housed in Canterbury.  In order to learn plainchant, the students sang Compline from a little booklet published by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, and they would periodically go down to the resonant crypt of Canterbury Cathedral and sing Compline.  When Peter started the Compline Service in Seattle in 1956, he used the same booklet, and this is what we have been singing from ever since.  And we always do an anthem at the end of the service, out of this English “ethos”.  It is a time when we offer something of great beauty, and something that lingers in my mind as I drive home, go to sleep, and prepare for another work-week.

In 2000, the Compline Choir traveled to Canterbury Cathedral to sing Compline there, and go down to the crypt, where it all started, and sing an anthem.  But that’s another story.

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