Friday, January 21, 2011
The Power of a Good Hymn
In particular, I was impressed with the way the hymns connected with the lessons and, where offered, the homily. The hymns were introduced with elegant simplicity, carefully using the powerful resources of the Schlicker organ.
In one of the services, a commemoration of the faithful departed, Evening Prayer included several movements from Brahm's German Requiem. A small orchestra provided all the support needed to allow the voices to predominate and yet both worked together well. It was a deeply moving moment for me for the last time I heard this blessed piece there, it was the final Choral Vespers of Concordia Senior College, a requiem for an institution killed by Synodical convention. With Herb Neuchterlein conducting some 80 voices and the full resources of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, it was one of the most moving choral experiences of my life. This was the same music but in a much smaller setting -- and it fit. Perhaps one of the greatest surprises was the skillful way the organist seguied into the final hymn, using the Requiem theme to introduce "Abide with Me." Hearing the hundreds upon hundreds of voices sing stanza four in harmony was the capstone of the evening. Again, a familiar and beloved hymn but skillfully set in conjunction with occasion and lection.
Never content to use simply the old and familiar, many were introduced to one that has become a favorite of mine -- "O Savior of Our Fallen Race" [LSB 403]. This is a poetic masterpiece that has become, for me, inseparable from Epiphany just as is "How Lovely Shines the Morning Star" [LSB 395 -- and, yes, I know the words are different there but I prefer the old]. I could tell from the way people were looking at their hymnals that this was new but the skillful introduction and musical leadership from the organ console made it easy for them to learn and, I expect, grow to appreciate its imagery and fitting melody.
"Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus" [LSB 531] was drawn together with the service and homily by the careful partnership of preacher [Dr. Dean Wenthe] and the organist. It is not a new hymn but to have one of the hymn stanzas used in the homily drew you back again and again so that the hymn came to both reflect and summarize the proclamation from the pulpit.
I could speak about other hymns and other services but I will stop for now. Let me plead with you Pastors who pick the hymns for your parish. Pick them early so that the parish musician may have time to work on the hymn and give it the effort that due them. Pick them so that they fully reflect where the lectionary and homily is headed so that they form a path to direct the people in the pews toward the focus of the day, reinforcing this theme over and over again throughout the service. Do not choose hymns on the basis of how well known they are or whether you like to sing them. Do not choose hymns quickly but work the hymn texts through your mind a while, singing them either to your self or out loud. Pray the hymns of the hymnal and you will find it easier to choose hymns for the service (and your people will bless you and appreciate you for it). If you do not want to do this, face up to the fact that your sermon will probably stick out (or the hymns) instead of fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, good and wonderful each in themselves but together a richer, greater, and more compelling whole than its individual parts.
A good hymn, well chosen, and played so that the people are encouraged to sing, becomes a snapshot of the liturgy, pericopes, and sermon that people carry with them throughout the week. I have been able to recall the homilies of the chapel because of their connection to the hymns and the hymns have remained with me because of the skill of a musician who did not make himself or the organ the focus, but, like the tune itself, worked that his playing and the resources of the instrument would be a handmaiden to the Word.
Just thinking... and singing over and over again in my mind... like I hope the people of my parish do week after week... I pray God that this is the fruit of the added time connecting the hymnody of the liturgy to the homily and lessons and am confident that this time is well spent...