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.
Through the last week of Advent and through the first three days of Christmas, my wife and I are staying at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey near Pecos, New Mexico – east of Santa Fe. It’s been a serene way to prepare for Christmas, and I will write soon about Compline at the Abbey.
Several weeks ago, with the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, fear was very much in the air. As I sang the hopeful Advent hymns, I knew again that the words turn us away from fear to hope, from despair to joyful expectation. Here’s one example:
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Another is the hymn “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding,” which I’ve excerpted from our Compline service from the Second Sunday of Advent:
Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say,
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”
Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from Heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.
So when next He comes with glory,
And the world is wrapped in fear,
May he with His mercy shield us,
And with words of love draw near.
Honor, glory, might, and blessing
To the Father and the Son
With the everlasting Spirit,
While eternal ages run.
The Advent Wreath is ready for tomorrow, when we will light one candle to mark the first of four Sundays of Advent, a time of waiting before Christmas – but it will also mark the beginning of a new Christian liturgical year, with changes of color, ceremony, and music.
The month of November always contains the last days of the old church year, along with other signs of seasonal change, which in the Northern Hemisphere include shorter days, bare trees, and icy weather. It is no wonder that the readings for the daily Mass and Office focus on end times and the hereafter. The first two days of November, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, set the tone. At the Compline Service in Seattle closest to the feast of All Saints, we read the list of all those departed who have sung with our choir since it was formed in 1956.
I loved the anthems we sang at Compline during November (remember that all of the services of Compline at St. Mark’s are available as podcasts on both complinepodcast.org and king.org). But I chose one of these to share with you because, in my recollection, it is the first time we have sung an anthem with piano accompaniment: “Blow Ye the Trumpet,” by the American composer Kirke Mechem (born 1925). Mechem wrote new music to an old hymn text.
One of the aspects of Compline is praying for a “quiet night and a perfect end” – for the acceptance of our own death. And as I wrote in Prayer as Night Falls:
Mysteriously, the more we seek our eternal selves, our true selves, the less we fear death. As we empty ourselves, shed the “tent of clay” that is our bodies, our egos, our senses, our thoughts, we fill ourselves with the presence that creates and sustains all.” (p. 56)
As we are filled with eternal life, “Why should we start, and fear to die?”
Blow ye the trumpet, blow,
Sweet is Thy work, my God, my King.
I’ll praise my Maker with all my breath.
O happy is the man who hears.
Why should we start, and fear to die,
With songs and honors sounding loud.
Ah, lovely appearance of death.
This year, my wife and I experienced the culmination of Holy Week in a very unique and special place: Holden Village – a Lutheran retreat center in the North Cascade mountains of Washington State. The site of an active copper mine from the 1930s until its closure in 1957, it is operated as a year-round center for retreat, learning, and worship. I had heard of it for years from some of the others in the Compline Choir who are regulars, but it was my first time there.
To get to Holden, one has to take a boat, the “Lady of the Lake,” up Lake Chelan for about an hour and a half, disembark, and form a “bucket brigade” to pass baggage and supplies to the old school bus that meets the boat. The bus then drives up a one-lane gravel road twelve miles into the mountains which surround the former mining town. We felt privileged to be the last visitors there before the village closed to guests for the summer, due to the arrival of hundreds of workers on an environmental mine remediation project; Holden will be open again to summer guests in 2016. There is a permanent staff throughout the year, made up of volunteers who commit to a period of service for many months or years. There are many young college graduates working at Holden before moving on to the next phase of their lives.
We got there on Good Friday, and the service that evening was very moving, with the community gathered around the foot of the cross. Many people contributed to the worship in different ways – reading, singing, playing instruments. The feeling of community was palpable, with parents of staff members visiting for Easter, and with many children of staff members, who attend a one-room school in the village. Needless to say, their teachers were in the community as well.
The Easter Vigil was unique, with the lessons at the beginning proclaimed in different locations and media throughout the village. The Eucharist was followed by a dessert extravaganza in the dining hall. And Easter Morning Matins was also celebrated in the hall, complete with an excellent bell choir:
Lent and Easter have been very special times for us at Compline; you can listen to many services of exquisite music at www.complinepodcast.org. We’ve also been working toward a special Peter Hallock Gala Tribute Concert on May 9, with the chamber choir Opus 7.
Here’s an Easter hymn for you, “Lift your voice rejoicing, Mary,” from the beginning of our podcast from the Third Sunday of Easter. Christ the Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!
Lift your voice rejoicing, Mary,
Christ has risen from the tomb;
on the cross a suffering victim,
now as victor he is come.
Whom your tears in death were mourning,
welcome with your smiles returning.
Let your alleluias rise!
Raise your weary eyelids, Mary,
see him living evermore;
see his countenance, how gracious,
see the wounds for you he bore.
All the glory of the morning
pales before those wounds redeeming.
Let your alleluias rise!
Life is yours for ever, Mary,
for your light is come once more
and the strength of death is broken;
now your songs of joy outpour.
Ended now the night of sorrow,
love has brought the blessed morrow.
Let your alleluias rise.
Time passes so quickly; January is almost over, and I can’t believe my last post was before Christmas of last year.
I’d like to look back at 2014, remarkable in its moments of both grief and joy for the Compline Choir in Seattle:
We had times of great grief beginning in April, when our founder and director from 1956-2009, Peter R. Hallock, died. Also in 2014, death took two of Peter’s closest associates for many decades. Carl Crosier, Peter’s business partner in Ionian Arts, and founder of the Compline Choir at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, died in August. Then in December, Glenn White passed away; Glenn was a remarkable acoustician, recording engineer, organ builder, and wine expert who collaborated with Peter on many projects over six decades. At his celebration of life on December 18, 2014, Peter’s Te Deum Laudamus (containing material pre-recorded by Glenn) was played in lieu of a sermon. If you’ve missed any of the descriptions of the services honoring Peter or Carl, go back a few posts on this blog, and you will find many links. Jason Anderson, director of the Compline Choir, recently published “I Call: A poem reflecting on loss” – I really recommend it to you. Also, I hope to write more about Glenn White and the Te Deum.
Now I’d like to report on some happier news from 2014. It was back in January of 1989 that my youngest daughter Francesca was born; until 2014, it was the last time that a child had been born to a currently-singing member of the Compline Choir in Seattle. But in 2014 we were blessed by the birth of not one child, but three! All three fathers have musical careers. Fred McIlroy is Organist-Choirmaster at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, WA, where he also directs a Compline Choir once a month. Justin Cormier is accompanist coordinator at Seattle Pacific University, and organist at First Free Methodist Church. Brian Glosh and his family will be moving to Virginia at the end of February, but we’ve been blessed with his contribution to Compline over the past year; listen to his countertenor solo at the beginning of “Once in Royal David’s City,” which we did in procession on the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 4. Brian, we’re going to miss you!
Events to Note
January 31, 2015 would have been the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and prolific writer.
On Saturday, February 28, 2015, 9am, I will be giving a presentation at the Search for Meaning Book Festival, an annual event sponsored by the Seattle University School of Theology. The Compline Choir is going to assist me in my talk, which is titled “Prayer as Night Falls: Seeking the Numinous at the End of the Day.” See the festival link for more information; I’m the second author listed under the “P’s.”