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 

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Advent Sunday: the Advent Carol Service

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Dear readers,

Please accept my apologies for not keeping up with the blog in the final stretch of the season after Pentecost. I return to writing in this space with renewed Advent vigor!

It's no secret that I love Advent. I would wager most church musicians do. It's full of extraordinary hymnody, seasonal carols (Advent carols, I mean; Christmas comes later), and profound themes.

Here at St. Peter's we continue our pattern of having a great Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent. This year's service is this Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

The service will begin with the Advent Prose set by British composer Judith Weir (b. 1954). The Choir will sing this from the narthex, as we do the Introits on Sunday mornings. The Choir will then emerge into the church during the processional hymn to the words:

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

It's worth mentioning that Judith Weir was commissioned by Stephen Cleobury (b. 1948) to write for the famous Christmas service at King's College in 1985. We sing one of Stephen Cleobury's splendid carol arrangements "The Cherry Tree Carol" after the Third Lesson. I became mildly obsessed with this piece earlier this summer, and I have written about it here.

It's also worth mentioning that Judith Weir has been commissioned by Stephen Cleobury again for this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's (please note: a true Christmas service, not an Advent service like ours). The composers Cleobury commissioned in 1983 and 1984 have since died, so Judith Weir is the earliest commissioned composer in his tenure still living. Cleobury will retire in September of 2019, making this year his last Festival at King's.

We'll sing many great carols, anthems, and motets at this service.

The Invitatory Anthem is by our good friend Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980): "O Oriens," which sets the words of one of the great "O" Antiphons of Advent.
It's the only work of Dunphy we sang before commissioning her to write "If thou wilt be perfect" for our anniversary service on October 14 of this year.

The Sopranos of the Choir will sing a splendid "Bible Song" by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924): his "A Song of Peace," which incorporates phrases from the familiar Advent hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel." So do keep an ear out for those!

The Motet "E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come" was written by American composer Paul Manz (1919–2009), but it is now famous the world over, especially this time of year.

"Come, thou long-expected Jesus" is often sung as a hymn at a service of this type, but the choir will sing it to music composed by Indianapolis resident Steven Rickards (b. 1959). I got to know Dr. Rickards well during my tenure at Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, but one of our altos grew up in this fine choir, and knows Dr. Rickards much better than I do! He has written an evocative setting of these words, full of poignancy and longing. Dr. Rickards dedicated this piece to the memory of his grandmother.

With "Come, thou long-expected" being sung by the Choir, the Congregation will have a go at "Savior of the Nations, come!" as a hymn this year. It's a sturdy Lutheran chorale that serves as the basis for myriad organ chorale preludes.

The topsy-turvy "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day" by John Gardner (1917–2011) is a mental  workout for the choir.

"This is the record of John" by Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) is a staple of Episcopal/Anglican choirs in Advent. We'll sing this work accompanied by the Mander Chamber Organ.

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry" is the hymn that follows the Sixth Lesson. I can't hear this hymn now without wanting to hear Dan Fortune's terrific descant on the last stanza that ascends to a high B-flat!

For the start of the final section of the service "The Christ-Bearer," we hear a quieter carol written by a composer strongly associated with St. Louis, Ronald Arnatt (1930–2018). His carol "The angel Gabriel from heaven came" is so simple yet devastatingly effective. It's is one of the 1,000 or so pieces filed in our Choir Library, and I have to say that I have genuinely enjoyed getting to know it this year. Ronald Arnatt died earlier this summer, so we will sing this piece with special intention for his memory.

Before the service ends, it's traditional to include the Magnificat (the Song of Mary). From the order of service we are using, there is a nod to the tradition of Choral Evensong at this Advent service, which uses the Magnificat; and the corresponding Epiphany service, which uses the Nunc dimittis. (We will sing A Service of Lessons and Carols for Epiphany on Sunday, January 13 at 5:00 p.m.)

Before the Magnificat, we will sing the carol "A spotless Rose" by Herbert Howells (1892–1983). We will follow it immediately with Howells's Magnificat setting for King's College, Cambridge: the "Collegium Regale."

I'm so excited about bringing this service to fruition on Sunday evening. And I didn't even mention the Byrd "Vigilate" which we will sing first in the 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Sunday. (Yes, please note that the full choir is showing up to church then too! If they can do it, surely the congregation can as well, right?) 

The organ prelude to this year's Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent will begin at about 4:35 p.m.

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All Saints' Sunday: Angels and Demons

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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

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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

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