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Trinity Sunday, in which we consider the Divine Dance

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or so goes the oft-repeated aphorism.

And if music generally is tricky to write about, church music can be even more so. And couple that with the tremendously mysterious feast day which we call Trinity Sunday and all bets are off. 

So rather than write anything, maybe we should dance our way into the music instead.

 The poet Malcolm Guite combines music and dance images in his sonnet "Trinity Sunday":

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

Hear also the words of Thomas Merton, from his New Seeds of Contemplation: 

"For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."

All of this is to say that we dance around the Trinity in an unusual piece by American composer William Albright (1944–1988), which we will sing at Communion. His An Alleluia Super-Round is written for a minimum of eight voices, all of whom sing the word "Alleluia" at different times and different speeds.  The piece begins with a single voice, and then another (as you would expect a round to begin), but since the voices may sing independently of each other the resulting music is left, to some degree, to chance. No two performances of this work are alike. From its gentle beginning, the piece grows until all voices enter. More exuberant iterations of "Alleluia" emerge from the texture until, finally, all voices come to rest on a single pitch. 

The Gloria in excelsis is sung by the Choir to the setting from the Missa Brevis by Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989)The Choir sang the Sanctus from this Mass on Palm Sunday. 

The organ voluntaries which frame our Trinity Sunday service are from J. S. Bach’s Monumental Clavierubung III, one of the few collections the composer saw published in his lifetime. The concluding voluntary, the "St. Anne" Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552b, with its triple fugue and a key signature of three flats is replete with Trinitarian symbolism. The opening fugue subject’s resemblance to the hymn tune St. Anne (Hymn 680: “O God, our help in ages past”) gives this piece its nickname.

By the way, please feel free to make your way up to the organ console during the concluding voluntary if ever you would like to see the organ up close.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a sonnet overflowing with Biblical imagery. The “ooze of oil / Crushed” is a reference to Gethsemane (literally the “place of the olive-press”) and the Crucifixion. The image of bare soil at once conjures the parable of the sower and speaks to a spiritually barren state. And “nor can foot feel, being shod” reminds us that all the earth is holy ground. The final sestet affirms the promise that God’s glory will continue to “flame out” and that God will help us to “become participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Kenneth Leighton’s (1929–1988) sublime setting of this sonnet, sung at the Offertory, includes a chord for “God” simultaneously D major and D minor, “a harmonically ambiguous, unsettling combination of major and minor, joy and pain.” 

 God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. 
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; 
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil 
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck* his rod? 
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the soil 
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 
And for all this, nature is never spent; 
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went 
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — 
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

* reck = to pay heed to

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Pentecost: Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, creator Spirit)

There are many wonderful hymns for Pentecost, but if we were pressed to choose just one for the day, my money would be on the ninth century Latin hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus". This hymn appears — count them — four times in various translations and paraphrases in our hymnal.

We most often sing this hymn to the translation by John Cosin (1594–1672) found at Hymn 504. This year, however, we are singing these very words in an anthem by American composer Leo Sowerby (1895–1968).

So then, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to sing another translation of this venerable hymn. And we will sing a more recent translation by John Webster Grant (1919–2006) found at Hymn 502.

It is suggested that of the translations in our hymnal, this translation by Grant comes closest to the original Latin, but that it is still a poetic paraphrase.

It captures my attention from the very first stanza:

"O Holy Spirit, by whose breath,
life rises vibrant out of death;
come to create, renew, inspire;
come, kindle in our hearts your fire."

By the way, that word "kindle" is very popular at Pentecost! We will also sing it in Hymn 516 ("Come down, O Love divine") this Sunday.

There are other lovely, unfamiliar (to me, anyway) turns of phrase in Grant's hymn: "burning love" "God's energy," "Flood our dull senses with your light".

At Pentecost especially, I give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in our creative endeavors. And all of this music and these varied translations are, I believe, the Spirit at work.

It is my prayer that the Spirit continues to create, renew, and inspire, not just our church music but our entire lives. 

Posted by David Sinden with
Tags: pentecost, 502, 504, 516
in Music

Pentecost, in which the Director of Music talks about his cat

This Sunday is one of the seven principal feast days in the Episcopal Church, the Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday. And it always makes me think about my cat. More on this later.

I was recently heard about the concept of "sober inebriation"  or "sober drunkenness of the Spirit" on a podcast I listen to called "The Liturgy Guys". 

What this has to do with is with the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit should animate not only our music and liturgy but our whole lives as Christians.

There is no better day to consider this concept than the Day of Pentecost. In the story of Pentecost found in Acts chapter 2, bystanders assume the disciples are intoxicated: "But others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.'"

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the death of American composer Leo Sowerby (1895–1968), often called “the Dean of American church music.” Sowerby was Organist and Choirmaster at St. James Cathedral in Chicago before heading to the Washington National Cathedral. Among Sowerby’s many anthems is the plainsong-inspired Come, Holy Ghost for Pentecost. The organ accompaniment at the beginning of this anthem is derived from a plainsong melody associated with Pentecost: "Veni Creator Spiritus". 

The anthem as a whole displays a kind of "sober drunkenness" because of its unusual time signature. The anthem is in five-four time (five beats in a measure). This kind of time signature is uneven. We tend to hear it as either a group of two followed by a group of three, or vice versa.

1 2 1 2 3 

or 

1 2 3 1 2

I think Sowerby's choice of this "off balance" time signature is deliberate for this music. It communicates the ecstatic joy that we read about in the Acts account of Pentecost.

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) had synesthesia, a neurological condition that allowed him to “see” colors of sound. His remarkable communion motet O sacrum convivium presents a vivid spectrum of harmonies indeed, a veritable musical rainbow for the New Covenant found in the “sacred banquet.”

The concluding hymn (573) brings to mind the Tower of Babel (“building proud towers”), which is traditionally presented as the opposing narrative of the Day of Pentecost. If God's action of scattering the builders of the Tower of Babel was what created different languages, we see those differences overcome when everyone from every place can understand the words of the disciples in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

Finally, a word about my cat. His name is Ampney.

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) wrote the hymn tune that we sing for Hymn 516: "Come down, O Love divine". Vaughan Williams named this hymn tune for the English city in which he was born, Down Ampney.

(Get it? When he jumps up on something we get to say, "down, Ampney".)

Vaughan Williams also really liked cats, apparently. In this photo we can clearly see the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (left) with his cat (right).

Posted by David Sinden with

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