Friday, January 21, 2011

The Power of a Good Hymn

One of the things I appreciate most about Concordia Theological Seminary is the worship life centered in the Daily Offices at Kramer Chapel under the leadership of Dean Paul Grime, Kantor Richard Resch, and Organist and Composer in Residence Kevin Hildenbrand.  The services are well thought out but do not over reach.  Even with a chapel full of Pastors for a conference, the simple structures of the Daily Offices are left in place, supplemented with the rich and wonderful tonal offerings of the Schola or Kantorei and occasional instrumentalists.

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...


Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: You were there at the end. I was the first student to register at the Senior College – not because of my good looks or high academic achievements, but because I was the first in the registration line to wear a jacket and a tie. Kramer Chapel was still under construction.

I have returned several times in the last ten years, and on several occasions had the opportunity to kneel at the altar without anyone else in the building. My years at the Senior College were among the most difficult in my life, but on my return I thanked God that He had heard my prayers in the depth of the pit and rescued me. Just as, in the Old Testament, people would name places after some event they had experienced, I call it “Where God was merciful to me.” I often wonder what that would be in Hebrew.

On my last visit, the Monday after Thanksgiving of last year, as we were leaving the Chapel Service, Dean Wente spoke to me and told me he had heard I had done good work in Russia. I had to disappoint the dear man by telling him that my work was not in the vineyard but in the field of commerce. I understand he has just announced his retirement. I had nothing to do with it.

Eero Saarinen has surely left a monument to his genius and to the glory of God.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

"killed the Sr College" I thought I was one of the few who thought thus (I use the phrase: someone coveted and took her)... 65 grad... Herb N. was our wedding organist and his wife and Mel Brelje's (died his year) wife introduced us, my wife sang in the mixed chorus and I met her at a Choral Vespers, I too have some stock in the place I considered the heaven of my system education... Milwaukee was hell and the Sem a purgatory from which to escape to the parish... I was there the last year for the small reunion days... How I miss those profs and days and (some say it opened us moderates/liberals too much... hmmm... Harvey Mozolak

Anonymous said...

Having reread my comments, I should add that the difficulties in my life, while I attended the Senior College, were not caused by the school. The vast majority of the professors and staff were extremely kind, capable people. It was a fine institution of higher learning.

George A. Marquart

Norman Teigen said...

Interesting post, as always, Pastor Peters. I learned something as I was not familiar with the historynwhich you described.

I found the photo of the hymn numbers equally fascinating. Whenever I go into an old church I like to look around. Norwegians frequently had all white altars. In my Grandfather's first church, a very humble building on the North Dakota prairie, there was even a small sacristy in the corner hardly big enough for a pastor to take off his outer garments and robe up. Yes, the old Norwegians were high church oriented and robed up.

And the hymn numbers. the numerals had little holes in them. The display rack had little 90' degree hooks where the numbers were placed. I imagine that there might have been a tool to reach the high hymn boards.

Your blogmcomes up in my Google reader and is prominent in my IPad Flip application.

Norman Teigen
Hopkins MN