Clef Notes

February 29, 2024

By: Stephen Schall

This Sunday we’ll hear the choir sing some acapella masterpieces by English Renaissance composers. First are two pieces by William Byrd (c.1540-1623): the Kyrie from his Mass for Four Voices, which we’ll sing each Sunday in Lent, and  at communion, Ave verum corpus. At the offertory, we have  Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake. Scholars are uncertain if this anthem is by Richard Farrant (c. 1525-1580) or John Hilton (1565-1609). Whoever wrote it, it’s a favorite of many for good reason.

This past Sunday’s theme was “inheritance.” Ben graciously turned over the Moment for Wondering so that I could reflect on our musical inheritance. Several members remarked on the talk, so I thought I would share the somewhat longer version with you here. 

Moment for Wondering: Inheritance

Today Ben will be talking about our inheritance of faith. The Old Testament lesson tells the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah in which God promises that they will be the parents of the nations. In the second lesson, we hear that we Christians gain this inheritance through our faith – not through the law, meaning among other things, not by being observant Jews – but through our faith. This has me thinking how we inherit faith and where we inherit our faith from. Of course, my thoughts turn to worship and music.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Giants of faith – the saints who built the “capital c” Church and even those who built this particular church – from whom we inherit the traditions and theology and even this beautiful building.

We musicians stand on the shoulders of those great teachers, performers, and composers who came before us from whom we inherit not just a method of playing or singing, but the great works of art that make up the body of sacred music. We take pride in this inheritance. Every organist knows their lineage back to Bach, for instance. Here at Northmont, I stand on the shoulders of my predecessors, BIll Goff and others, from whom I have inherited this wonderful choir and Northmont’s musical tradition. The choir, in turn, stands not only on the shoulders of its directors but also on the shoulders of all the faithful people who have sung here in the choirs over the last century.

Liturgy and its music shape our faith as Christians profoundly. In fact, many would argue that liturgy and music are the primary influences on our faith. It has been well said that “No one leaves the church humming the sermon.” The linking of words to music through ritual action becomes part of our collective unconscious and makes us who we are as a church. They are our inheritance.

Have you ever considered how our worship and its music reflect our particular inheritance of faith? From whom, what, when, and where do we inherit the elements of today’s service?

It may surprise you to know that today’s worship service reflects an incredibly rich fabric of faith that is made up of diverse strands of liturgy and music drawn from centuries of tradition from all over the world. 

I’m going to take the chronological approach. Christianity is inextricably linked and rooted in Judaism. Our theology, our worship, and even our liturgical texts come from Judaism. Examples in today’s worship include the responsorial psalm and the closing hymn. Every time we sing the psalms we are connecting not just to our Jewish brothers and sister, but also to our Muslim siblings who also count these ancient hymns as theirs. And the musical setting of today’s psalm connects us to the contemporary American Roman Catholic church.

The closing hymn, “The God of Abraham Praise,” comes directly from Jewish heritage. The text is a metricization of the Yigdal – a Jewish Creed with 13 points of faith,  formulated by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. Daniel ben Judah, a 14-century Roman liturgical poet, versified them – turned them into a hymn – and that hymn is frequently used in Jewish worship, sung to a melody that is the basis for the tune we sing. 

As we move into the Christian era, we see elements of our worship that have remained unchanged since the earliest liturgies in the church, like the penitential rite and the liturgy of the word. Throughout Lent we’ll hear the choir sing the Kyrie, the Lord, have mercy, which is part of the penitential rite. These words have been on the lips of Christians since there were Christians, and throughout these two millennia they have remained in Greek, the first language of the liturgy. And you’ll be hearing them sung to the incredible art-music of one of the finest English Renaissance composers, William Byrd, which was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, about 1592!

The words of our middle hymn, “Kind Maker of the World,” are a translation of the seventh-century Latin hymn, “Audi benigne Conditor.” It has been used for centuries during Lent at the daily services prayed in monasteries. It is attributed to Gregory the Great, who was a Roman nobleman who became a Benedictine monk, and later, pope. He contributed greatly to the universal church by sending missionaries to England and reforming the liturgy. But among musicians he is famous for founding or reestablishing the Roman singing school. Gregorian Chant is named for him. We’re singing it to music that is a French Christmas carol composed sometime in the 15th century.

The words of the introit, “Attende Domine,” date from the 10th century, from the Mozarabic RIte, which is from the Iberian Peninsula on which Spain and Portugal are located. 

Finally, I’ll point out that it’s the end of Black History Month, and two pieces heard today come from the Black Church: the prelude was a setting of “Deep River” by contemporary African American composer, Adolphus Hailstork; and the offertory is a beautiful setting of “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” In many ways, these two tunes probably speak most deeply to us Americans due to their familiarity and the associations we may have with them in our religious past. Contemporary American worship has been enriched tremendously by the music of the African American church. 

As we’ve just seen, in this single, one-hour service of worship, we are drawing on rituals, words, and music that span millenia, multiple worship traditions, musical styles, and the globe. Through our offering of praise and thanksgiving in this service of worship, may we give thanks for this rich fabric of faith that we have inherited from the great cloud of witnesses whose faith has brought us here today. May we give thanks for all of them, and give thanks to Almighty God for bringing us here to continue the song. Amen.