Archive for the ‘hymnody’ Category

Wells Cathedral

Whit Sunday came to us with rays of sunshine, clear blue skies and finally a summer breeze. We celebrated the story of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the fulfilment of the Trinity through our choral evensong as the four small village churches that make up our rural benefice came together in fellowship.

Whilst getting ready for our morning Eucharist, I heard a reading of Philip Larkin’s compelling poem Church Going on BBC Radio 4.  Curious, I wondered how it might fit in with the theme of Pentecost. During the preparation for evensong, ‘someone’ forgot to supply the choristers with the Book of Common Prayer. After singing our introit, there was uneasy ‘spirit’ rustling through the quire stalls as our vicar announced which page to turn to next for the prayers. As Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had been one of my extra-curricular studies at uni 30 years ago, I quietly crept from my creaky wooden perch in the quire and attempted to walk invisibly down a side aisle beyond the prayerful towards the back of the nave, where I had earlier noticed the BCP’s were stored in a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. Our vicar had collected some extras as he went about his Eucharist round with the village churches that morning, in anticipation of an overflow crowd. (There’s always hope!)

I did not grow up with the BCP as a part of my church tradition. Although I have grown to love it, I have yet to commit it to memory as many of my fellow choristers have. Sensing a ‘spirit of unrest’ descend upon them as well, I made sure to grab an armload of these small treasures in faded blues and reds to slip to them surreptitiously and as quietly as possible when I found my way back to the quire. After I sat down and readied for the next bit of worshipful thought I had a sinking feeling the choristers around me who grew up reciting the BCP in their dreams might take offense. But I noted they all balanced the little book between pages of music and Psalter using it to guide them through the beautiful intricacies of our liturgical offering. Quiet peace was flowing through the quire once again.

Why all this fuss? Because I, a believer, hate to feel ‘cut off’ when worshipping. I need at least a few comforts of familiarity to guide me closer into God’s presence. I am already living in a land where very few of the hymns sung are those I grew up with. I am blest indeed to have the Lord introduce me to a variety of tunes and lyrics – in hymnals and Psalters – that have given Him such pleasure, honour and glory through the ages. There is a feeling of alienation when I cannot read the notes I am meant to sing or mouth the messages of lyrics I am expected to share when in fellowship with other believers. I want to know the moment I come to the altar the weave and wonders of the liturgy on offer.

Ah! So this is how a poem of Larkin’s would add to my worship thoughts. Imagine the nonbeliever or agnostic such as Larkin or some of my dearest friends, drawn into a sacred space and met with structures not familiar to their lives. As a believer I have no doubt that an agnostic’s ambivalence towards religions’ own pomposity can be stirred by a fresh breath from God. As for the indwelling and benefits of the Holy Spirit there is an air of je ne sais quoi even for the believer.




Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round. 


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This post, in part, is inspired by a recent post of my dear friend’s, Jim Clark, and also an unwarranted reflection on the dismal turnout for our vicar’s first attempt at Liquid Church (See last post. For a description of Liquid Church, click on that title for a link).

Sometimes I wonder if our American Christian society – which I, and others, see slowly seeping into the British church culture – hasn’t been going ‘Hollywood’ or ‘Nashville’. We can’t be ‘just’ loving, caring ministers from the pulpit or with children or in other ministries, whether as professionals or as laity. We have to be ‘celebs’ in whatever ‘field of ministry’ we were called to – a concept, it would seem, to be uniquely American. If we’re not, then those who could come to our churches, attend our programmes, etc., won’t, because they just have not heard enough great and marvellous things about what our clerical expertise has produced. In their estimation, the entertainment value is just not significant enough for them. Their benefits and our success seem to go hand in hand.

What is wrong with this picture?

A couple of illustrations I am familiar with:
Young composers/songwriters, no matter how theoretically and educationally trained, or how ’God inspired’, might never complete their projects or fully develop as the composer God intended for them to become. Why? Because before the notation is even correctly edited on their manuscripts, those who hold the power in the music industry have already thrown flaming arrows and judged a young composer’s work as insignificant, invalid, and against the bottom line: it won’t sell, it won’t have great video or marketable value, and it most definitely will not be a hit. The kid doesn’t have what it takes to be an instant celeb – in looks, weight, or bless, personality. Fix their teeth, work on their image, for God’s sake! Success and significance are merely pipe dreams. Forget that the song or work of music might be uplifting to a body of worshippers who just want to please the Lord.

Gone are the days when the composers of hymns – tune or text – remained faceless. The hymn was the cause celebre, not the hymn writer.

Within my own field of ministry, I am ‘called’ on at various times to produce music suitable for worship. Whether it meets a certain liturgical criteria, or fits in with a specific spiritual theme for the corporate benefit of the choir or congregation during worship, I am tasked to compose something, hopefully compelling and inspiring, much as a preaching minister would have to come up with the next week’s homily, even when I might not feel so inspired.

Whatever ‘work’ comes out of the creative process, it is nonetheless my offering, one to be shared, yet more importantly one to be presented to my God. My prayer for the process is always twofold: one, that it will edify fellow worshippers, and two, that it will be pleasing to God. No matter if there will only be twelve choir members singing on the day, or a congregation of just thirty-five, whatever piece of music I supply for the worship has to function as an offering pleasing to Him. It might never be sung again. Some congregants might politely sing praises to my face of its artistic qualities, yet diss it behind my back. It quite possibly will not be accepted by a big established publishing house. It most definitely won’t get a mention in Variety or be in the Top Ten on the radio. And (sniffle), it might never win that Dove or Grammy award!

How easily it is to paralyse our walk with God when the focus of our God-gifted abilities lies on our world’s spectacular circus of fame and fortune. Those of us who were born to please others can certainly fall prey to this spiritually debilitating paralysis, and our cycle for failure is set, sadly, for life.

There is a special hymn from my childhood, one I loved whenever we sang it in worship, and one I dearly miss hearing sung congregationally today. I will sometimes, as a reminder of its noble message and beautiful music, pull out my old hymnal and play it on the piano, committing it to heart once again.

I dearly hope the text of this hymn uplifts you. But keep in mind that even this lovely hymn offering had to suffer an earthly trial. Literally. In court. All the hours spent arguing its case, for both musicians involved, no doubt paralysed further service of real significance in their own strolls with God through verdant meadows green. At the end of the text, I have included a portion of the court’s ruling from Judge Duffy’s Opinion. (You can read the entire case by clicking on the link with his name. As a musician, I especially like that last paragraph below.)

As I continue this season of Lent, I am grateful for friends like Jim who – though far, far, away – help me wrestle with such reminders. So, for this week, perhaps my Lenten focus will be more on walking, step by step, with my loving God, who simply wants to clasp hands, and go for aye together.

Now where’s that hymnal?


IB Sergei (Wihtol), 1935

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands,
Our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.
We clasp our hands,
Our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

He tells me of the years that went before me:
When heavenly plans were made for me to be;
When all was but a dream of dim conception –
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.
When all was but a dream of dim conception –
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk as good friends should and do.
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.



Wihtol VS Wells

Plaintiff Wihtol was born in 1889 in Riga, then a part of Russia, later a part of Latvia. He studied music in his childhood, and has followed that art professionally all his life. He has written many musical compositions, especially ecclesiastical pieces. He came to the United States in 1909, and to Chicago in 1936. Prior to August 15, 1935, while in California, he wrote the song “My God and I.” Plaintiff testified that in his early boyhood, an organ grinder used to make weekly visits to the neighborhood in Riga where plaintiff lived, and that among the tunes played was one similar but not the same as the tune in “My God and I.” He testified that he had never heard the song sung. He carried this tune in his mind for many years. Plaintiff’s composition was designed primarily for church choirs and had soprano, alto, tenor and bass scores.

The accused composition is also entitled “My God and I.” It appears in a song book entitled “Evangel Solos and Duets Number One.” This book was published in 1951 by the Evangel Music Company, Inc., which defendant, his wife and another had organized as a corporation for that purpose. On the cover of the book appears “Written and Compiled by Kenneth H. Wells.” A photograph of Mr. Wells also appears thereon. Wells was an ordained minister of an interdenominational group. From 1943 to 1951 he frequently used plaintiff’s composition, and was aware of the favor with which plaintiff’s “My God and I” had been received in church circles. The Evangel Music Company, Inc., was originally named a defendant herein, and was referred to as a firm. The corporation was dissolved and plaintiff consented in the District Court that it be dismissed from the case, and this was done.

The District Court found “In composing the accused song, the defendant used the melody of the plaintiff’s song which he, the defendant, had committed to memory.” The District Court found that the tune in suit was taken from an old Latvian, Italian or Russian folksong, and that tune was in the public domain for years prior to the time plaintiff copyrighted it in 1935. The Court said: “…the tune of the song in suit is incapable of being protected by copyright.”

Of all the arts, music is perhaps the least tangible. Music is expressed by tonal and rhythmic effects. People can enjoy music without a technical understanding or education, but to make music available, someone must write it. To make a song available, someone must bring the notes and words together.

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