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.
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.
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.
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].
The spring of 2016 is the 60th anniversary of the Compline Choir in Seattle. The choir and visiting alumni will be celebrating it on the weekend of August 12-14, when we will sing for the morning services at St. Mark’s Cathedral as well as Compline that evening.
This spring also marks the second anniversary of the passing, on April 27 2014, of Peter R. Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir. Each Sunday night, as we sing, we face the plaque on the pillar in the “Compline Corner” which marks the niche where some of Peter’s ashes and other mementos are stored:
Both anniversaries have caused me to reflect on the Compline Service, its legacy, and what has moved me to sing it week after week for more than fifty years.
For the last 60 years, a choir of men has been chanting a half-hour service done over the centuries by monks and nuns at the end of the day – before they go to sleep. It’s called Compline, from the Latin completorium which means “completion,” both in the sense that it honors the end of the day as well as completes the daily cycle of prayer services called “the offices.” or “Divine Hours.”
The Compline Choir started at first as a group of men, many of them professional church musicians, who were interested in learning more about chant as well as singing multi-part music. In 1956 the group began to end their Sunday evening rehearsals by singing Compline in an otherwise empty but quite resonant Cathedral. Let’s imagine for a minute that we were in that group. Was it the beauty of music — an aesthetic experience — that motivated them?
Certainly. But perhaps for some, there were moments when they felt another presence there — something mysterious….something compelling…something holy.
Through the 1950s and early 1960s, people started to attend the service. They found something in just being silent, engaging in what some would call “active listening,” others “silent worship.” The local classical music FM radio station started a live broadcast of the service in 1962, which continues to this day.
In 1964 I was invited to sing in the choir by a friend. It was not too many years after that the service was discovered and populated by many young people, who claimed the space by not only sitting in the pews, but by sitting or lying on the floors – not an unusual idea for my generation, which was becoming known for shattering cultural barriers. What is remarkable is that the number of people who attend the service has remained constant and youthful ever since the mid-1960s, with 200-500 attending the service, and from 15-30K listening over live radio or internet stream. Why are people listening to the service? What do they find there?
Let’s listen to a hymn that I recall from my earliest days at Compline, and which I write about in the first chapter of my book. The hymn is called “Now the day is over.” Follow along with the words, and see what it evokes for you…
In the three verses of this hymn we hear the main ideas of Compline. First — “Night is drawing nigh,” bringing thoughts of the brevity of life and the need for vigilance. Then — “With thy tenderest blessings, may our eyelids close” – perhaps a hint that sleep is like a “little death.” And finally, the idea of our need for protecting presence: “May thine angels spread their white wings above me, watching round my bed.”
As I observed in my book, “It was a child’s prayer – “Now I lay me down to sleep” – but here were men in their fifties singing this in utmost sincerity and sweetness.”
And, when I experienced it, there was also this presence – I know it now as a numinous experience – a feeling that there was something in that haunting space that was “wholly other,” mysterious, symbolized by the darkness, but which could be accessed within myself as well.
The man who started the Compline Service in Seattle was Peter Hallock, to whom I dedicated my book, Prayer as Night Falls.
Peter was born in 1924 and grew up in Kent, Washington. At the age of 9 or 10 he first saw St. Mark’s Cathedral, heard the music, and, as he described it, he felt like he had “died and gone to heaven.” He studied organ and composition at the University of Washington, served in World War II, and then attended the Royal School of Church Music from 1949-51, which at the time was in Canterbury, in another Kent entirely. He also became one of the first Americans to sing in an English Cathedral Choir at Canterbury Cathedral.
Among his studies was Gregorian Chant, and his class would go down to the crypt of the cathedral, and they often sang the Office of Compline, which had just been published with the Gregorian melodies set to the English words of the Proposed book of Common Prayer from the 1920s. The experience of singing Compline in English – in Canterbury, which had been founded by Benedictine monks thirteen hundred years before –in the-crypt, which was as resonant as that heavenly building back in Seattle — was perhaps the most profound experience that Peter brought back from England.
When he returned to Seattle in the summer of 1951, he was hired by the new Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral to be the organist and choirmaster, a post he held for the next 40 years. After his retirement from St. Mark’s, he continued to direct the Compline Choir another 18 years.
I knew and worked with Peter for almost fifty years – he was a major mentor for me. I learned from his thoughts and words and his music, all of which were informed by and evoked the numinous. We’ll get to hear two of his compositions later on.
Peter advised me periodically as I was writing my book, and I was especially happy that he was able to read it in November 2013, because his health was getting “iffy.” He emailed me at one point that there was something he wished I had written about more. It was only in April 2014, when I visited him in a convalescent facility, that he told me “look into the Otto camp.” After doing a little research, I realized that he was talking about the adherents to the ideas of Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher at the beginning of the twentieth century, who had first used the expression “numinous,” from numen – a deity.
In the second part of this post, I’ll show how the concept of the numinous infused Peter’s compositions, and why the Compline Service has continued to appeal over the years.
The Compline Service for Sunday, March 20 from the Compline Choir at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, has been for me a wonderful source of meditation since it was made available on the Compline podcast site this week. All the words and music are especially appropriate to Good Friday, but the first selection on the podcast has a special story…
“O Cross, whose wood is all our race’s boast” was a hymn whose text was written by Thomas B. Stratman (1939-2008) and set to music by Peter R. Hallock (1924-2014) in 1989. Jason Anderson, director of the Compline Choir, made a new edition of the hymn, which had only existed in manuscript until last week. Tom Stratman, an ex-Dominican, was a friend of mine with whom I co-directed a Gregorian Chant group in 1979-80; he was very active at St. James Cathedral in Seattle as an instructor of new catechumens, but also composed music and poetry. He died on August 6, 2008, the Feast of the Transfiguration (as celebrated by Roman Catholics).
At St. Clement of Rome Episcopal Church, where Peter Hallock was organist after his forty years as Organist/Choirmaster at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, I found a manuscript copy of “O Cross…” last fall (first page is in the picture). The original copy, as well as many other hymn arrangements and transcriptions, are now in the archives of the Hallock Institute.
Here are the words to the hymn, which is the first selection on the podcast:
O Cross whose wood is all our race’s boast, / may God forbid we glory save in thee,
for peace and mercy blossomed on your tree, / a new creation for a world once lost.
Upon your wood, vain pride was crucified: / I to the world as it to me there died.
Now streams flow forth abundant from your side / that cleanse the earth and my soul purify.
Most blissful wood, more fruitful in delight / than that first tree of which we ate and died,
your flower is Christ, the food that springs to life / made everlasting, new and glorified.
So with the psalmist let us all proclaim: / God from the wood victorious shall reign;
and let all choirs of heaven and earth acclaim / the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s name.
If you have more time to listen to the service, note that after the short lesson, the usual response “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. For you have redeemed me, O God of truth.” is replaced by a polyphonic setting of these words by John Sheppard, “In manus tuas.” This response was sung in England (Sarum rite) at Compline only during Holy Week.
I wish you a good Holy Week, and a happy Easter 2016!
A month ago, my wife and I were on a ten-day retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, near Pecos, New Mexico – where I wrote my last post. It was a deep experience of Advent and Christmas in a setting of great beauty and prayer, made even more serene by the blanket of snow that surrounded us.
There were no more than five guests at any one time during our retreat, so our small group was invited to take all our daily meals with the monks in their upstairs refectory, which afforded gorgeous views of the grounds, nearby mountains, and the Pecos River canyon. One day everyone got up to watch a pair of golden eagles sitting on a tree branch not more than twenty feet outside the window.
While my wife was working on her own project in the monastery library, I attended most of the daily offices. The normal schedule began with Vigils at 6AM, Lauds (Morning Prayer) at 7AM, Holy Mass at 7:30AM, and then breakfast. Noon Prayer was followed by the midday meal. The normal evening rites included Rosary, Vespers, Adoration, and finally Compline, at 7:15PM. Because of the changes required in the schedule due to the Christmas solemnities, Vigils was sometimes observed the previous evening, and Compline was omitted. Mass was always attended by a handful of people from the village of Pecos, but on Sundays as well as Christmas Day there were many attendees.
At the end of each day, it is traditional to sing the Antiphon to the Virgin Mary appropriate to the season – and whether the last office of a particular day was Vespers, Compline, or Vigils, we all turned to the back of the chapel to face the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was illuminated. The antiphon sung from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Purification on February 2 (Candlemas) is the Alma Redemptoris Mater – you can listen to the simple tone here.
One of the most vivid memories in my retreat was a reading at the 6:00AM office of Vigils on December 22. There are normally two readings at Vigils: the first is from the non-Gospel portions of the Bible, and the second from the great literature of the Church – on this day the second reading was from a commentary on the Gospel of Luke by the Venerable Bede, concerning the Magnificat (the Song of Mary). Here is the first part:
Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.
It was personally moving for me to be hearing this reading, in the presence of those who had also surrendered their whole lives, to offer all the powers of their souls in praise and gratitude. This was my first time on retreat for more than a couple of days – and I know it won’t be my last.