Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri. It is written by the David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music. You can learn more about the church's music ministry at stpetersepiscopal.org/worship/music or email David at 

"/>

Keys to the Kingdom

Filter By:
in Music

All Saints' Sunday: Angels and Demons

main image

It has become that time of year when we celebrate All Saints' Day on a Sunday. (You can search the Book of Common Prayer for the words "All Saints' Sunday", but you won't find them in there!)

The service begins with the familiar hymn for this day: "For all the saints." But I want to draw your attention to the hymn that will conclude the service, Hymn 618: "Ye watchers and ye holy ones."

It's a marvelous hymn that begins with a catalog of angels. Actually, "holy ones" is a reference to the saints, but all the remaining nouns (except for "strain") refer to different classifications of angels. It's like an angel family tree! Wikiepdia has a good overview.

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain,
Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels' choirs,

I've had some fun in our recent Chorister rehearsals over the last few weeks asking our young singers "what are seraphs? cherubim? thrones?"

The answer, as they've discovered, is always "angels".

The angels are close companions of the saints. We see that in the first line of the first stanza. The second stanza lifts up one saint for special recognition.  And in doing so helps place the Saints in the grand scheme of things.

But the words are somewhat coy – always referencing this saint without actually saying who it is. Can you work out who the saint is that we're singing about?

O higher than the cherubim,
more glorious than the seraphim,
lead their praises,
Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the eternal Word,
most gracious, magnify the Lord,

The clues come in the last two lines: "bearer of the eternal Word" refers to the God-bearer, she who bore Jesus in her womb. And the "magnify the Lord" is a clear reference to the Song of Mary, or the Magnificat: "My soul doth magnify the Lord." 

So if you said the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Saint Mary as she is sometimes known, you're right! 

"Ye watchers and ye holy ones" is not a very old hymn. The author Athelston Riley was one of the compilers of the English Hymnal, and this hymn was first published in that 1906 book.

The staggeringly beautiful descant we will use on the final stanza is by my good friend Noah Horn, the organist and director of music of St. Thomas, New Haven, Conn. It's one that he wrote less than a month ago, and this is the second time we will have used it. We also sang this descant at our Anniversary Festival Eucharist last month.

The song of the saints and angels blend together with our earthly song at the time of the Sanctus (which is something I've written about in this space before). This week the Choir will sing a setting by the famous 16th-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. It's from a Mass setting based on his own Motet "O quam gloriosum," another All Saints' Day piece that the Choir will sing during Communion.

The hymn at communion will be a marvelous arrangement by American organist and composer John Ferguson of the hymn "Shall we gather at the river." We have sung this at St. Peter's every All Saints' Sunday since 2015, and it is quickly becoming a favorite, I believe. In the words of this hymn too, we gather "where bright angel feet have trod." 

If the angels and the saints show us the clear path to heaven, they also have the effect of standing in sharp contrast to what is truly demonic in this world. On my mind since last Saturday is the horrible act of violence committed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The organ music before the service this Sunday is by the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, and it is offered with special intention for the victims of violence in that house of prayer.

And this is all about the music for the 10:30 a.m. service Sunday morning. I hope you'll plan to join us at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday as we continue our "Season of Festivity" with a Hymn Festival: "Our Hope for Years to Come". 


Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri. It is written by the David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music. You can learn more about the church's music ministry at stpetersepiscopal.org/worship/music or email David at

in Music

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost: mystery at the gate

There's a real mysteriousness to the choral music that we are singing on Sunday.

The first type of mystery might be described as the "mystery of the mountains" to borrow a phrase from a particularly beautiful prayer by Jeremy Davies.  It's this mystery that proved the inspiration to American composer Jake Runestad in his beautiful choral work "I will lift mine eyes". The composer writes:

I came across Psalm 121 from the Bible and found great beauty in the admiration for natural creation linked with a promise of guidance and support from a higher power. I find such peace in the splendor of the natural world and I wanted to capture that serenity with this work. I carefully shaped the melodic lines to mimic that of a mountainous landscape and the tone colors to the bold hues of where the hills meet the sky. 

By the way, since we're talking music, mountains, and mystery, another piece comes to mind: Symphony No. 2, Op. 132 "Mysterious Mountain" by Alan Hovhaness. Not exactly a piece you'll hear in church any time soon, but it is one of my favorites, so I wanted to mention it here.

But a piece that absolutely stopped me in my tracks when I heard it for the first time is the six-voice "O salutaris hostia" by William Byrd. It doesn't exactly sound like your typical music from the Tudor period. It is full of these mysterious dissonances.

What's at play here, musically speaking, is the cross-relation. This was an accepted temporary dissonance caused by the way different voices moved. In Tudor polyphonic music, there was slightly more importance placed on each individual voice rather than the harmonies as a whole. And though Tudor music is full of glorious harmonies, there are these moments of harmonic "crunch" caused by the clash of two voices going their own merry way.

In Byrd's "O salutaris," however, Byrd seems to relish in this compositional principle, almost going out of his way to find these perplexing piquancies. Furthermore, because the piece involves the principle of canon, each cross-relation finds an echo in the voices that follow after. 

There's really nothing else like it, and it's been a challenge learning this piece. I asked the choir this Thursday if the piece was growing on them and one choir member responded, "yeah, like a fungus."

So what does all this have to do with mountains and mystery? Well, just as I wrote two weeks ago about "the gate of heaven" we find the essentially same language in the words of "O salutaris" that Byrd is setting in this very particular way.

O salutaris hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium:
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.
Amen.

O saving victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.
Amen.

This Eucharistic motet asks that we take another step in considering the gate of heaven in our worship. Not only do the doors of the church provide a kind of "gate of heaven," but Jesus Christ himself is the saving victim who opens to us the gate of heaven by his dying and rising, and by the giving of himself with his own hand in Eucharist. Pretty mysterious stuff!

And it would need someone a bit cleverer than me to tie mountains into this Eucharistic mystery, but I bet you could make a case for it. This same God is the one who intervened on Mount Moriah when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son. This same Jesus is the one who went up a mountain to give his longest speech (the Sermon on the Mount).

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121)

O saving victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow. ("O salutaris hostia")


Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri. It is written by the David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music. You can learn more about the church's music ministry at stpetersepiscopal.org/worship/music or email David at

Posted by David Sinden with
Tags: byrd, runestad
in Music

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost: musical connections

main image

One of the marvelous things about church music, for me, is learning about little connections between words, music, and composers over time.

Take this Sunday, for instance. The very first thing we will sing is an Introit to an Anglican Chant by Lionel Dakers. Dakers served Special
Commissioner for Royal School of Chuch Music (RSCM) from 1958 to 1972, and Director from 1972 to 1990. St. Peter's is a member of the RSCM, and you can make a connection with them right now by visiting their brand new website: https://www.rscmamerica.org/.

I relish the chance to make musical connections in the service every Sunday. For instance, the Introit and the hymn that follows are both in F minor.

I've sung the hymn "Not here for high and holy things" many times throughout the years. Every time I sing it, I am surprised by how beautiful and timely I find the words. The author of the hymn is Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. 

The second stanza begins: "the royal robes of autumn moors," but it goes on to catalog imagery for every season of the year.

And I cannot help but smile when we get to sing

"the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing,"

How I enjoy that word "glistering"! This is its sole appearance in the Hymnal.

It's worth taking a look at the hymn as a whole. I was reminded in a conversation with colleagues this week that one of the disadvantages to American hymnals is that it is more challenging to appreciate hymns as a poetic form. In the UK, hymns are mostly printed with the music and the words on separate, facing pages.

Note how the first three stanzas of "Not here for high and holy things" are a catalog of "the common things of earth" – a list so long that it occupies three full stanzas of the hymn!

Not here for high and holy things
we render thanks to thee,
but for the common things of earth,
the purple pageantry
of dawning and of dying days,
the splendor of the sea,

the royal robes of autumn moors,
the golden gates of spring,
the velvet of soft summer nights,
the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing,

of faith and hope and love undimmed,
undying still through death,
the resurrection of the world,
what time there comes the breath
of dawn that rustles through the trees,
and that clear voice that saith:

This list of "common things" is so long that it occupies three full stanzas of the hymn, culminating in that tantalizing "that clear voice that saith:". That's why you see these three stanzas starred with an asterisk in the Hymnal. You could omit them, begin with the fourth stanza ("Awake, awake to love and work") and still have a perfectly beautiful hymn of praise. But we will enjoy the full poetry and set up for the final three stanzas.

The final stanza provides us a connection with Stewardship Season at St. Peter's.

"to give and give, and give again,
what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost;
to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all worlds that are,
and all that are to be."

In some places, the congregation might eye this hymn choice rather suspiciously! But I have no doubt that in a parish as generous as St. Peter's, these words read more as a description than an imperative.  Stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure is a fundamental part of Christian discipleship. How could we not sing these words? And we should do so "right gloriously"!

The hymn that we will sing prior to the Gospel has all kinds of associations for me personally. I won't bore you with them here.

At Communion, we will sing an anthem that was written for the new headquarters of the RSCM in 1954 by William H. Harris: "Behold, the tabernacle of God". It's a splendid little anthem, and I wanted us to sing it during this year when we are celebrating our sesquicentennial. The words are from an Antiphon for the dedication of a church. I especially enjoy the phrase "season of festivity," which we have used as a title for our Choral Evensong and Concert series. And remember Lionel Dakers, the composer of the Introit? He moved into the new RSCM headquarters a mere four years after this anthem was premiered.

Since the Choir is singing Handel at the Offertory, I wanted to conclude the service with another bit of Handel. This piece is the March on a Theme of Handel by Alexandre Guilmant. This work was written in 1861, the same decade St. Peter's was founded. Guilmant was the celebrity organist at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and organ teacher to my predecessor Charles Galloway.


Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri. It is written by the David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music. You can learn more about the church's music ministry at stpetersepiscopal.org/worship/music or email David at

Previous123456