Friday, September 15, 2017

James Chisholm, Priest

Fr. Chisholm departed this life on September 15, 1855 and is commemorated today on the current Episcopal Calendar. Until this morning, he was unknown to me, just a name on the calendar.

You may read about him here. Or (mostly) in his own words at considerably more length (200-plus pages) here, in his memoirs.

Chisholm was from Old Virginia, where he served St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, down in the flat Tidewater region of the state, a graduate of the Virginia Theological Seminary. By the accounts that we have, he was not an impressive person: bashful, delicate of constitution, weak.

When the yellow fever came to that part of Virginia in the summer of 1855, most of the clergy and physicians fled, along with the rich planters. But Fr. Chisholm stayed, alongside the Roman Catholic priest, Francis Devlin. The two of them did their best to care for the sick people, all of them poor, many of them Irish immigrants and black slaves, finding food for them, even digging their graves at times. About a quarter of the original population of Portsmouth died by the time it was over, above three thousand persons. That number included Fr. Chisholm, worn out from his work and not quite forty years old.

I have spent a while skimming parts of his daily journal during the fever; near the beginning, as it became clear what was happening and everyone who could fled the town, he wrote “Such a day of mortal panic and flight as today has been, I desire never to see again” (p. 100). It proved to be the last day that anyone was allowed in or out of the town. About this point he abandoned the journal; what remains after that is personal letters. In one of them, he writes:
My present condition surprises myself. I trust that I more than ever realize that ‘Eternal God is my refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ I am in His hands, to do with me what seemeth Him good. (p. 133)
What is most striking to me is that his work is not that of general benevolence, of the somewhat anonymous care for the sick and needy one finds after natural disasters, as important as that is. It is the care of people he knows well by name, children whom he baptized as infants, members of his parish, with “parish” defined in its proper state-church sense to include everyone living in the community, churchgoers or not, including the Roman Catholics. It is especially the suffering and death of the children than is grievous to him, as it would be to any pastor.

It is also striking that it never seems to have occurred to him that leaving his parish was a possibility. Never mind the other clergy doing exactly that; the idea of walking away from his people when they were in need was unthinkable. There is no hint that he felt at all courageous or special for staying in place.
The condition of our town is awful beyond conception. The eye must see; the ear must hear; the fancy can not furnish the deep, dark shadows of the picture. On Sunday, thirty-two deaths in Portsmouth; on Monday, twenty-one; yesterday, thirteen; today, by eleven o’clock, seventeen. The heartless language of the undertaker from whom I obtained this morning’s report, was, almost in a tone of exultation: “Oh! We’ll get it up to twenty before sunset!” (p. 132)
In February of that year, his wife had died, leaving him with two young boys. At the beginning of the pestilence, he had sent them away to stay with his brother, hoping for their safety. It was not to be: September 5 was the darkest of days for Chisholm. In short order that morning he received a letter from his brother with the news that one of the boys was dead. He began writing a letter in response, called away before he could finish to officiate at the burial of a young girl from his parish. While pronouncing the Committal by the open grave of the little girl, he was seized with the sudden chill that was the first sign of the disease. For some people, it proves to be a minor infection, over within a few days. For others, it enters a toxic phase as it did for Chisholm and so many of his parishioners; high fever, bleeding from mouth, eyes and nose, black vomit, severe dehydration, liver failure and jaundice (thus the “yellow” – the Spanish name is Vómito negro, “black vomit.")

In a final letter to his brother, he wrote (p. 145):
I look back upon my past life with sorrow and shame, when I remember how unworthily and unfaithfully it has been spent… my convictions, and emotions, and hopes, in approaching Him, as my refuge against the accusations of conscience, and the fear of death and judgement, find expression in the words of that hymn whose first and final stanzas are these:

‘Just as I am! Without one plea,
Save that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God! I come.

Just as I am! Thy love unknown,
Has broken every barrier down:
Now to be thine, and thine alone,
O Lamb of God! I come.’

Collect from the Common of Saints: Of a Pastor
O heavenly Father, Shepherd of thy people, we give thee thanks for thy servant James Chisholm, who was faithful in the care and nurture of thy flock, even unto death; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by thy grace grow into the stature of the fullness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP p. 196)
I have long revered Constance and her Companions, whose feast day was this past Saturday, September 9. Like Chisholm, they cared for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic, theirs in Memphis, Tennessee (1878). And like Chisholm, they died from the disease.

I do not know it as a fact, but I would suspect that Constance knew of Chisholm’s example. It may be that it strengthened her.

It may be that their examples may strengthen us.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Finish then thy new creation

“Play softly,” they told me. “Quiet background music,” while people prayed. Some for healing, back in the side chapel where a line of people formed; a dozen or so at the baptismal font with the priest, renewing their commitment to Christ. Some, sitting in the church, listening, praying. Many in other parts of the building and outdoors; one-on-one prayer with the bishop, walking a labyrinth, mindful coloring, writing of prayers.

For twenty minutes I was to play. Or twenty-five. Or more. However long it took. I was terrified. I could easily play random soft chords in a new-ageish manner and fill the time. But could I do better than that?

I came to view it as an examination. I have improvised preludes and postludes all summer and devoted all of my practice, such as it was, to this skill; have I made any progress? Sometimes it has gone well this summer; sometimes not so much. Could I now attempt a long-form improvisation in the manner of Mr. Jarrett? Obviously I will never have his virtuosity, but could I do something that would be worthy of the occasion, perhaps a channel of healing and prayer?

Well, I gave it a try. I played variations on Hyfrydol, which was to be the closing hymn a bit later in the service. With that much time, I could go pretty far afield. I consciously tried to avoid any clear statement of the tune, and kept it in minor for much of the piece. I sought to extract motives and work with them.

Always, there was the liturgical constraint: “Quiet background music.” That removed dynamics as a possibility for contrast and development and I had to rein in the ideas several times when they wanted to grow larger than would have been appropriate. The constraint mostly ruled out “fast” as well as “loud.”

I made a recording, but I am not going to post all of it; there is too much noise. That was a clue that I got it right; for most of the first fifteen minutes, the priest speaking quietly with people at the other end of the room from the microphone is louder than my playing. This is a good sign.

There was some good playing in it, and some that was not so good; if it were indeed an examination, I would give myself a C-plus and be content that it was not an F. [Edited 9/13 to add: I listened to the recording two more times; it was not so bad as I thought as I played, nor on first listening. Maybe a B instead of C plus.] (I am grateful to one of the jazzmen who used to work in our choir room, a saxophonist. He told a student: “Any improvisation where you don’t feel like you need to put a bag over your head and sneak out the back door is a success.” He is right about that.) The best part was not me: one of my tasks was to set up the key for the Skipperlings to sing “Long time traveler” after me. That is worth hearing, so I am posting the last eight minutes or so of the improvisation followed by their song. The selection starts softly, just before my return to the improvisation’s tonic of C after a long excursion to G flat and B, but it builds up (finally!) after the bishop returns, my cue that it is time to wrap things up.

And here is the closing hymn, on which the improvisation was based. My intent was for the violinist to play on the final stanza, doubling the descant; instead, he played for all three stanzas. That made the middle stanza, unaccompanied except for the violin, much better than what I had anticipated.

- The summer’s work was not entirely wasted, but there is much still to do. I am unable to convincingly organize twenty-five minutes of improvisation so that it sounds like a unified musical composition. Not for the first time, I am filled with admiration for how Mr. Jarrett can do this so well. The way to get there would be to do many more “practice runs,” with close attention to form. This is not directly useful for my proper duties, so it is unlikely to happen. I am still listening to his four-CD recording “A multitude of angels” and seeking to internalize it.
- There were a few weeks this summer where my organ improvisation was better than my work at the piano; I have posted a couple of these on SoundCloud. This was a goal, and I am happy to have reached it, even if the way I did so was with lame piano playing on said Sundays.
- I survived despair. There was a week when I became convinced that my improvisations were driving people away, keeping them from entering the church from the narthex until my noise-making was done. By “what some would call chance,” that very week I happened on one of Pressfield’s books: “Do the Work,” the sequel to his important book “The War of Art.” I must say that “Do the Work” is not as good of a book, and something of a waste of money – it is short, and mostly repeats material from “War of Art.” But some of the material unique to this book was exactly what I needed to drag me out of the Slough of Despond.
- Possibly the chief benefit of the summer’s work was to my accompaniment of congregational song. Devoting more of my practice time to what I call the “Thelonious Monk method” (play the tune at the organ continuously for an extended period, forty-five minutes or an hour) made me more adventuresome when it came time to sing the hymn on Sunday, and in some cases perhaps more effective.

Now it is back to repertoire and anthem accompaniments. There is much to be done there, too. In fact, this very day I received what I view as a word from the Lord: a trustworthy friend told me that during the service I have been describing, she heard it as a voice: “(my name) has more work to do here.”

I wrote that down and attached it to my door, alongside the pictures of Bach, Bruckner, and Keith Jarrett.
Finish then thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
(Charles Wesley)

Windows Movie Maker: a Rant

I have a more useful essay to post (perhaps tonight, or in the next few days), but first a Rant.

Not so long ago, Microsoft had a useful program called Windows Movie Maker. I used it for all of my YouTube uploads; so did hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other people. It was easy to use, and worked fine.

Microsoft has pulled the plug on it. Their current operating system, Windows 10 (which I am using, unwillingly) does not include it, or any equivalent. Win10 has their version of a digital assistant, Cortana, and supposedly you can say “Hey, Cortana!” and get answers to any question. I have found “her” not so useful in general (Wikipedia is a much better starting place), but often fairly useful for specific Windows-related questions.

But not this one. Many people have asked what to do for a Movie Maker equivalent, and the official Microsoft forums carefully dodge the question. There are a number of “apps” available, but a search for one today led me down a two-hour rathole. I installed EZVid, which some sources consider the top choice. But it will not accept audio in WAV form; it accepts only MP3. All of my tracks are WAV. That led to a search for a WAV to MP3 converter. There are many of those; the free ones all seem to install helpful little toolbars and advertisements. Charming.

I gave up. For the tracks that I wanted to upload to support my essay-in-progress, I will use SoundCloud, which does support WAV files. But I am soon going to bump into their size limit for free accounts, and I do not want to commit to a monthly subscription for the rest of my life.

Clearly, the Powers That Be at Microsoft do not want people to do what I do: create music – mind you, not pirated tracks by others; my own creative work – and post it on the Internet to share freely with others.

I gather that this task would be simple and free on Apple products.

Friday, September 8, 2017

O day full of grace (and a recipe)

I have not posted a Recipe for a long while, and this is not really one, just a variation. One of our family favorites is the Middle-Eastern salad called Tabbouleh, made with bulgur wheat, large amounts of fresh parsley and mint, black olives, cucumber, tomato, olive oil and lemon juice, plus other additions ad libitum.

Yesterday when I made our weekly batch, I used Kasha (toasted buckwheat) in place of the bulgur. It adds its own distinctive flavor (sort of nuttish, perhaps a bit like walnuts?) and I think that I prefer it. There is the added advantage that the dish now becomes gluten-free; here is a link discussing that aspect, and noting other nutritional advantages, particularly buckwheat’s high levels of fiber and protein. [Edited to add: My wife does not like this at all. I do. Your experience may vary.]

On the current Episcopal calendar, this day (Sept. 8) is the feast of two nineteenth century Danish Christians: S. Kirkegaard and N. F. S. Gruntvig. The former is more generally known; the latter is more important to me because of his hymns. Our choir is working on an arrangement of one: “Built on a Rock the Church must stand/even when steeples are falling.” Here is another, which I love even better, as much for its tune Den Signede Dag as for the text: “O Day full of grace, which we behold.”

Most of all, I love the arrangement of this by F. Melius Christiansen for his St. Olaf Choir, especially the way it begins. It is a grand undertaking to sing this, which I once did at a music workshop (Presbyterian Conference on Worship and Music at Montreat, NC – that year, Anton Armstrong, one of Christiansen’s successors at St. Olaf, was the adult choir director and clinician). Here is a recording of the hymn by another fine choir, the Nordic Choir of Luther College.

I recall Mike Wagner’s sermon at the RSCM course this summer, wherein he spoke of the Collegiate Choir at Luther College (in which he sang) and “taking it home,” with “it” being what I call Connection. If one doubts what “it” or “connection” might be, this recording is a fine demonstration. May these young people take “it” with them wherever they go.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Matins: some Considerations

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church. (Book of Common Prayer p. 13, the first sentence of the Book after its contents, certificate, and preface)
Earlier this summer, I suspended the public weekday observance of Matins (Morning Prayer). There were reasons for this, and reasons why I thought the suspension would be permanent.

For our parish, the story began with Fr. Sanderson in the autumn of 2000 when he arrived as interim priest-in-charge. He was determined to pray Matins and Evensong every day in the parish church as is meet and right, and in obedience to his ordination vows in the Church of England. The Vestry opposed him on this, claiming (with some justification) that the establishment of times for worship was their prerogative. He ignored them, noting that he would open the doors and pray the Office whether they liked it or not and whether they listed the Offices on the calendar as public services or not.

Several parishioners joined Fr. Sanderson for the Daily Office, most of them from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew and Daughters of the King, with the best attendance at daily Evensong which at times ran to five or six persons. Matins settled into a regular gathering of three: Fr. Sanderson, Bill (a member of a neighboring parish who worked in our city at the university), and me.

When Fr. Sanderson departed, several of us took the responsibility of continuing the Office. Charles, Delbert, and Grace (may she rest in peace) led the daily Evensongs; I led Matins, excepting two Saturdays a month when the Brotherhood and DOK prayed the Office and had their meetings. After Bill’s retirement, he no longer came into town for Matins so it was just me, with occasional visitors. One of those was the diocesan Bishop. On Sundays, I am regularly joined by Fr. H., our distinguished retired priest and canon, with (again) occasional visitors.

Evensong has dwindled until the weekday version no longer happens. All that remains is Choral Evensong on the First Sundays of the month during the academic year. And Matins, until this summer.

I was to be out of town for several occasions in July and August, most notably the RSCM Course. Getting the Matins service on to the official printed church listing of events (and website) is complex, as is its removal, so it seemed best to remove it altogether rather than moving it on and off to fit my travels.

And I am tired.

Not of the Offices, mind you; I continued to pray them. But I was tired of doing them at a fixed hour, of being accountable for it no matter how I felt, no matter what else I had to do. I was tired of the responsibility of having the door open to all comers, most often street people who know that I am there at that hour (and no one else) and they can ask for money. Even though it was not every day that anyone showed up, or even every week, the prospect of it has worn me out.

But there are other considerations.

For one thing, those street people, just a few of them in truth. Two of them have been around enough so that they join in the prayers when they show up. Perhaps it makes a difference for them.

For another, this fall’s confirmation class is making a special emphasis on Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of these young people are in our Choir and I have known them since they were small children. How can we tell them “This is important,” but by example say “No, it’s not. We can’t be bothered to have this as a regular service of the church.” It was this consideration that carried the day for me; I cannot put into words how much I want for these young people that they establish the habit of daily prayer and attentive reading/hearing of the Psalms and Holy Scripture. If I can aid them even a little by example, that would be worthwhile.

This morning, I sent a Slack message to the secretary and sexton that we will be starting Matins next week. Three mornings a week, plus Sundays.

We shall see how long I can carry it forward. At most, I have but a few years remaining in this place. Perhaps someone else will pick it up in this parish. Or perhaps not.

But “the voice of prayer is never silent.” In one form or another, liturgical prayer has been offered to our Lord and God every morning and evening since He commanded his servant Moses that it be so, and more informally clear back to when He used to walk in the Garden “in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve. It was the rupture of this fellowship which signaled that something had gone horribly wrong (Gen. 3:8-19), and it was only His grace that healed the breach.

It is given me to have a small part in this for a while. When I am gone, the prayer will continue. That much is certain.

[Update, Sept. 8: One of the aforementioned street people joined me for Matins this morning. He is struggling with addiction and doing well for now, trying to put his life back together. Among the things he is doing: turning himself in for a short jail sentence in lieu of a fine, which he is unable to pay. "I might as well take care of it," he told me, and came to Matins seeking strength to carry it through.

And here I am, barely willing even to open the door and offer this little service as a public liturgy. Kyrie eleison.]

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Much has been written and said about the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville over the weekend. I am a son of the South; my readers and friends know my respect for the Confederate States of America. Thus, I cannot be silent. Not when the supremacists marched under the Stars and Bars, and made a statue of Robert E. Lee the focus of their Saturday rally. Their actions dishonor the flag and the veterans who served under it. This is far from the worst of it, but it is something that should not be forgotten in the turmoil.

Let me be clear. I absolutely denounce white supremacy. And racism. And the hatred and persecution of Jews. Or anyone, for any reason.

Three observations:
- I have no doubt that Mr. Lee would be angrier than I am, and would disassociate himself from these people. In the months and years after the war, whenever someone would stoke the fires of hatred against the north, he would rebuke them, often heatedly. “We are all Americans now,” he said. I am certain that he would do the same today.
- There were racists among the Confederate soldiers, and more so among the politicians. But I think that the best of them would join Mr. Lee in denouncing the actions of the supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere.
- This is the work of our Adversary. Hate and fear are his strongest weapons. But he that is with us is greater than he that is in the world.

After last fall’s election, I wrote:
I suspect that the United States will be a darker, more divided, and more dangerous place in three or four years, most of all for people who are not of white European descent….

I think the stage is set for a genuinely progressive candidate to run against President Trump. By 2020, we will have a good idea what a Trump presidency is like, complete with Republican control of House and Senate and probably the Supreme Court. And I think a great many people by then will be ready for some genuine change.

The trouble is, there are more directions for change than one. The stage may also be set for a more effective candidate from the far right, perhaps a charismatic Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran with a fondness for armbands and torchlight parades. Mr. Trump’s campaign provided a model for how such a person could win an election in the United States. I suspect there are young adults who have been paying attention.
It has only been a few months, and we already have the torchlight parades. God help us.

[Added on Tuesday, August 15, the Assumption of the B.V.M.
I have a large photograph of Mr. Lee in my office. Like the pictures of J. S. Bach and others on the inside of my door, the icon of the Mother of God, the holy cards that lean up against my computer monitor to remind me of the saints, the photo of Mr. Lee is for me an icon, a window into the divine space where he lived his life as a faithful Episcopal layman. He reminds me to be gentle and forbearing with others, to treat everyone with respect, to act as a Christian gentleman no matter what defeats and failures may come, to react with patience and a calm spirit when others are angry. He teaches me to humbly commit all of my intelligence and ability to the tasks that lie before me, and to commit the results to Divine Providence.

I need these lessons now more than ever.

But I have removed his photograph and put it into a manila file. My office is too public and I do not want to provoke trouble. Upon reflection, I concluded that this is what he would do, given the circumstances. Mr. Lee does not need our monuments; he is at rest with the saints in glory.]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Skipperlings: a Review and an open Letter

The Skipperlings, a vocal and string band, played for the Iowa City Farmers’ Market the other day, Wednesday, July 26. I wrote of them here, but it is time to write some more.

The group is of particular interest to me because all three of them sing in my choir: Caleigh, Greta, Claire. Their “arranger, accompanist, and manager” (as she was introduced; on banjo in the photo above), Jean Littlejohn, is my closest musical friend. In our differing spheres of activity, both of us are committed to getting people to sing. For me, it is the Songs of Zion; for Jean, it is mostly folk music and community singing, especially the choir she founded and directs, the Family Folk Machine. All this is to say: expect no objective detachment in my appraisal.

But that is part of my point. Music at its best grows from community, as I tried to describe in my recent RSCM Reports. It is local, homespun. It is not something reserved for a handful of glamorous superstars; music is meant to be made among friends and family and church congregations. People you know. Children from your church choir. Neighbors. Co-workers. Friends. In this, the Skipperlings are a first-class example.

This was a full-fledged gig: two hours of music. Greta told me during the ten-minute break that they were singing “everything we know, and a few that we don’t know.” Those who are performing musicians know what it means to prepare two hours of music – memorized, all the kinks worked out. It is a lot of hard work, the stuff that separates the pros from the dilettantes. And every song, every last one of them, was solid, their beautiful close-knit harmonies perfect and strong, always sung with strong Connection.

It is not insignificant that the girls were at the RSCM Course. On the one hand, six hours of daily singing put them in top vocal condition; on the other hand, I doubt that they found time for their Skipperlings songs, other than the one they sang at the talent show. They were home two days, and then the gig. That is impressive.

All of them are string players as well as singers: Caleigh on the violin, Claire and Greta on the cello, which they sometimes played as a miniature stand-up bass by extending the end-pin all the way out. They have both learned to sing and play the cello at the same time, which is not elementary. But it ties them to a long tradition, right back to the medieval troubadours and jongleurs, some of whom played the viola da gamba as they sang.

Their presentation was ideally suited to the venue, the local farmers’ market (which to their credit strongly supports local music). People walking around, shopping, eating food from the vendors, lots of noise. Lots of families and children. For most of the people, the Skipperlings were background music, a welcome addition to the market. A few people drifted in and out from the “stage” area (a concrete pad at one end of the parking area-turned-market), listening for a few songs. Maybe twenty or thirty listeners of this sort at any one time, and a few people that stayed for most or all of it.

One of their songs called for Kermit the Frog (a stuffed animal version), whom the girls sat in front of them as they sang. A little boy toddled up, hugged Kermit, and toddled off with him, his mother chasing him – all while the girls sang, giggling a little at what was going on. It was delightful.

It was all low-key, relaxed, fun. The girls bantered among themselves between songs as they tuned. They introduced the songs, sometimes with good-natured disagreement as to what the song was about. Claire encouraged us to visit their Facebook page.

Local music, local food. Both homegrown by people of the community. If there is hope for the United States and beyond, this is part of it.

I do not know what lies ahead for the Skipperlings. As a group, they are not likely to be famous, though they do have a significant local presence and following. Caleigh’s voice and stage presence remind me more than a little of the young Alison Krauss, fiddler and singer and one of my favorite musicians. By Caleigh’s age, Alison had a contract with Rounder Records and was working on a commercial recording, “Too Late to Cry,” released when she was sixteen. Here is an old video of the title song, back from those days.

None of the three Skipperlings are yet at that level as musicians, though I would not rule out one or more of them getting there someday. But that does not matter; Claire, Greta, and Caleigh will walk their own paths which may include some fame, or not. What is certain is that their futures, together and apart, will include lots of quality music-making. And right now, the summer of 2017, is a special time for them, and for all who hear them. One can ask for no more.

Dear Skipperlings:

You are unexpected.
I do not think that anyone, even Jean, foresaw what you have become by singing together, playing instruments together. Your music brings light and joy to the world. This is no small thing. When you sing at a farmers’ market or Uptown Bill’s or anywhere else in the community, you change the world. Not by very much, mind you; it might be one person who was sad and depressed and you brought them light, at least for a little while as they listened to you. Or it might be a child, like that little toddler with Kermit, who sees and hears you and the seed is planted: “I could do that. I could sing like that someday and be a musician.” The work of music is given to us. But it is not given us to know the results of it, not in this life.

Days will come when you are the one who is sad and depressed, or frightened, or without a clue as to your next step. It is then most of all that you must keep on singing. The light shines in darkness, your own as well as that of the world around you.

There is a purity and innocence to your singing. I hear it in your voices, see it in your onstage demeanor; it is a part of the delight you bring to your audiences. This is partly because you are young. But it need not disappear as you get older; I see and hear some of it (for example) in Jean when she is working with the Folk Machine or playing the organ at church. Jeff Capps and Tara Dutcher have this, too, as do many others. I hope that wherever your paths lead, you continue to carry it with you.

For the best examples, one must look to the saints: Joan of Arc, for one. Cecilia, patron of music. Francis and Clare of Assisi. Most of all, look to the pure and innocent Lamb whom I know you follow and in whom you rejoice. He was pure of heart and soul and entirely innocent right through the Cross and into the pit of Hell. And He can carry us with Him all the way through the worst of it into heaven.

Don’t forget the church songs: the hymns, and the sort of things we sang this summer at the RSCM Course and in our church choir, and the people who sang them. I do not need to tell you what these things mean; you have experienced them for yourselves.

Finally, here is some advice I wrote a few years ago for others; it applies now to you and I hope you will take the time to read it:
Advice for young musicians

Whatever happens, whatever form your music takes, keep on singing and playing your instruments. You are a light in the darkness.

Friday, July 28, 2017

RSCM Report, part three: Taking it Home

I have taken choristers to RSCM courses for upwards of thirty years. Most of those years, it has been just a few young people, a fraction of the choir back home. Where I now work, it began with two little girls entering the fourth grade, the minimum age for the course. They came home with a vision of the possibilities and did all that was in their power to make the parish youth choir better. As did I, year after year.

This year we took fourteen choristers and a proctor. It is almost the entire Youth Choir, plus Tom (who now sings with the adult choir). No longer do we need one or two people to show the others how it is done; they all know, and several of them were among the leading choristers vocally and musically. All of them know what it is like to sing this kind of music well, with connection and intensity and total commitment, among a group where everyone is at that level. All of them surely want to keep singing this way.

It is an opportunity unique to my decades of church music, and unique to the choirs participating in the course this year. I do not think that any of the other directors are returning home to as strong of a group as I will face in our first rehearsals a month from now - not even Mr. Buzard, our course director, who has the task of building a program for young singers from scratch at a distinguished cathedral where there have been choirs, but no young singers for almost a century. I am sure he would love to start with a group such as what we will have back in Iowa City.

It is a test for me. How can I help these choristers maintain the level of work that they have done this week? Here we have six hours or more of rehearsal a day; at home, it amounts to one hour a week, and many of the choristers cannot be there for all of that. That is the issue, a perennial issue for most church choirs of all ages. One rehearsal a week is not sufficient; it is like trying to play the organ by practicing one day a week.

But the choristers (and adults) have busy lives, of which choral music is only a part, and it is right that it be so. On the wider scale, is choral music at a high level going to be solely for the handful of places with choir schools, daily rehearsals, daily choral services, semi-professional and highly trained singers on the ATB parts? Is music at this level a closed door to everyone else?

The answer to that comes down, in microcosm, to what I do with these choristers back home, starting on Wednesday, August 23. We repeat the Bruce Neswick anthem “The Invitation” for a service with the bishop on Friday, September 8. Can we sing that anthem and that service with the intensity we gave to choral evensong at the RSCM? Can we then carry this forward into the fall and winter? We plan to sing the Vaughan Williams setting of “Lord, thou hast been our refuge” on Christ the King; can we make this as strong as the Howells canticles and “Rejoice in the Lamb” at the course? And in doing such things, can we incorporate new first-year choristers and give them a good start?

I can and must do some things at home which are not feasible at the course. Can I do better about teaching them solfege and making them independent musicians? Can I work with our young choirmen? They are not maintaining good posture at all times in rehearsal. Several of them need to open their mouths for a taller vocal space. Can I help them make these things habitual? Many of the choristers, trebles and teens alike, are not marking their scores. That is because I have not taught them to do this, and that is one of the ways in which choristers - or any professional musicians - can remember what they have rehearsed when it has been a week since they last met. Can I help them make music an essential part of their lives for the rest of their days, and beyond that through the ages of eternity? And most of all, can I through the music we sing and rehearse do my part in bringing them into the full maturity of the image of Christ?

And can we do all of this in that one little hour per week? For me, it is now or never. I will be judged on this at the Day of Doom. Will it be recorded in the presence of my Lord and the holy angels that I gave it all that I have, leaning ever on the Holy Paraclete for guidance and strength? Or will the record state that I slacked off, allowed the choristers given into my care to slack off, and squandered the opportunity? “Where much is given, much is required.”

Jesu, juva.

I acknowledge Mike Wagner for his sermon at one of the weekday evensongs at the Course, which I think he titled “Taking it home.” Mike sings in one of the finest choirs in America (the Nordic Choir of Luther College), and described how another collegiate director said to his director “this choir has ‘it,’” meaning by “it” what I call “connection.” Our RSCM director of a few years ago, Andrew Walker, called it “attitude.”
Back at the Choir College, Dr. Flummerfelt described it as Connection, and I will probably use that word, though Attitude needs less explanation. When singing, are you connected to the text and musical line with all of your being? Or are you going through the motions? It might be possible for instrumentalists to sometimes get away with the latter, but the voice is so thoroughly a window into the soul that it is immediately obvious if the singers are not Connected -- and, if the other basics are in place and the group has done its homework, Connection makes it possible for the song to touch the hearts of the listeners. This will never happen if the hearts of the singers are not likewise touched by the Song and absolutely committed to it.
Whatever we call it, we had it at the Course, and now we must take it home. Tomorrow’s essay will describe an example of how this is done.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

RSCM Report, part two: Some thoughts on Renaissance polyphony

In some respects, the most challenging piece in our repertoire was the Ave Maria by Robert Parsons (c. 1530-1570). For the singer, especially in the ATB parts, it is a doorway into another plane of existence. From the outset, we launch into long melismatic lines on the first words, Ave Maria. The tenor (which is what I sang) has twenty-four notes on the syllable “ri”; the other voice parts are similar. The melody goes on, and when you sense that it is nearing a cadence, it goes on some more, far beyond what I can sing in one breath, or even two or three.

Why? For what reason would a composer write such a ravishingly beautiful melody for two words, most of it for one syllable? And then bury it in the middle of the texture, where no one except the tenors will know how beautiful it is?

It is for love of Our Lady. Love even for her name, love overflowing into melody.

And that is not enough, for the basses and the two alto parts are also singing, their melodies equally beautiful, the four lower vocal parts overlapping one another, entwined most wonderfully. And finally, the trebles soar above the texture in long notes. At first, Ave. Just the one word, as if they cannot bear to go on. Then Ave Maria.

The music flows onward, phrase after phrase, each more beautiful than the last. Gratia plena. Benedicta tu. The melismas seek to show how completely full of grace she is, how blessed. Fifteen hundred years and more of painters and sculptors, of architects and poets, have sought to express this; I think that they fall short of the musicians. Perhaps it is because our art is participatory; one experiences it properly only by singing it. The choral art is communal, as well; no person can experience this motet without the other singers. Renaissance polyphony of this sort is one of the clearest expressions of community. The six vocal parts are thoroughly interdependent. As a singer, you focus on your own part, but you are constantly aware of the other parts, all related to one another, but each with its own melodic and rhythmic flow. So it is with the Kingdom of God.

The Parsons is a masterpiece. The Ave verum corpus of William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) is even more of a masterpiece. Three pages, only a few minutes - but every note is exactly what it should be. Offhand, the only thing to which I can compare it in size and perfection is the motet on the same text by W. A. Mozart, one of his finest works -- but the Byrd is its equal. Here, the music expresses devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the transfigured Bread and Wine - at a time and place when both the theological truth and the Latin language were illegal. As Mr. Buzard told the choristers, this was never sung in public in Byrd’s lifetime; it was probably sung in secret at someone’s house, and probably with one person to a part. It is thus more intimate than the Parsons, each voice part more of an individual outpouring of love, of wonderment at the Sacred Mystery. But it is still four parts, no one complete in itself - still the expression of a community, albeit small. In our rehearsals at home, I told the choristers that the Byrd is a very great masterpiece, and I hoped that they would grow to love it as much as I do. Mr. Buzard said pretty much the same thing to them at the Course.

O dulcis,
O pie,
O Jesu fili Mariae,
Miserere mei.

For the most part, we have shied away from this repertoire at the RSCM courses. It is often challenging to maintain one’s own part with so much going on around it, and I suspect the idea is that it would be a bit much for young choristers to master in one week; also, it is less dramatic than music of later eras and (one might think) less immediately interesting to young singers.

I submit two points: First, it was not the trebles who found either the Parsons or the Byrd to be difficult; it was the ATBs. Second, one would need a heart of stone to remain unmoved in the singing of either of these motets. That is as true of a ten-year old chorister as it is of an old choirmaster like me. I wonder what it is like to experience something like the Byrd for the first time.

We sang these things at the Basilica of Saint Louis. Crowded onto the choral risers behind the Altar, surrounded by these my friends, many of them choristers from our parish, singing these things in such close proximity, the vocal parts interweaving into a whole, was an extraordinary experience. And I think we sang the Byrd with more connection than the Tallis Scholars in the recording linked below, or any of the several other recordings I sampled – perhaps because we had many trebles and teen ATBs for whom this was their first exposure to the piece.

Earlier, I gave short shrift to the visual artists. They are in fact part of this as well; the music needs the gorgeous large acoustic of the Basilica, about seven or eight seconds of reverberation. It is supported by the visual splendor; everywhere one looks in such a building, there are statues, mosaics, paintings, windows -- all pointing toward our Lord Christ. They are beautiful and compelling - but the music breathes life into the room.

Here are YouTube recordings of the Parsons and the Byrd – not by us; some of our services were live-streamed, but I am not aware of any recordings that remain on the Net.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RSCM report: part one

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
(Christopher Smart)
This year, I am not writing a detailed account of our RSCM experiences. Were I to make the attempt, I would mostly be repeating what I have written in other years: for example here and here. I content myself with a few observations:

Last year, the trebles began the week sounding tentative, young. This year, the distinctive sound of a strong, confident treble section was present from the first warmups. On the other hand, last year we had an unusually large group of adult tenors and basses. This year, it was one of the smallest adult contingents of recent years. It was our turn to sound tentative in the first rehearsals, for the large majority of the tenors and basses (and one of the male altos) were young men in middle school and high school, some with newly changed voices. These young choirmen are one of the special glories of the St. Louis Course, this year perhaps more than any other. By the end of the week, they sang with distinction.

This year’s music director was Stephen Buzard, who recently moved to St. James Cathedral in Chicago as organist/choirmaster after service at St. Thomas, New York City as assistant and then interim director. It was he who had to carry forward that top-line choral program after the sudden death of John Scott in 2015. Stephen attended the St. Louis Course as a treble; I remember him from those days. That made it a special delight to have him return as the course’s music director - his first time directing an RSCM Course. I expect that it will not be his last. He is every bit the equal of the distinguished musicians we have had in the past, and better than most of them. I grew quite fond of him this week, as did the choristers.

Our repertoire for the week was challenging, featuring the Britten “Rejoice in the Lamb.” One of my choristers, eyeing the forty-page choral score, asked at our first rehearsal back home: “Are we going to sing ALL of this?” Yes. And we did it exceedingly well. As if that weren’t enough, we had the Howells Collegium Regale evening canticles on the same service.

At the Sunday Mass in the Basilica, we sang three of the finest Latin motets, of which I will have more to say in Part Two:
- Parsons: Ave Maria
- Byrd: Ave verum corpus
- Duruflé: Ubi caritas

I hope that the choristers will long remember what it feels like to sing such things in that acoustic, and in the context of a Catholic Mass. I hope also that this music was an icon for those who heard it, a window into the eternal Song. It was a privilege to live intensively with this music for a week, and to sing it with these people whom I love.

That brings me to my final point: my pride in these choristers from our parish, and my affection for them, as well as for many of the adults and choristers from other congregations who have over the years become my friends. Were we to never gather again, it would be a hard thing. But we shall: as I have said many times, it is my hope that we might together make music before the Lord our God through the ages of eternity. My guess is that it might not be that different in essence from the rehearsals and services at the RSCM courses and (sometimes) back home. Then we shall hear the voices of our fellow choristers as they really are, complete in Christ and more glorious than anything we can here imagine (C. S. Lewis wrote of this, frequently).

Looking about the dining hall at meals, the chapel during rehearsals and midweek evensongs, and seeing groups of them singing, talking, laughing, playing, making new friends and renewing old friendships with young people from other choirs, sometimes supporting one another through difficulty, and at the last watching them reunite with their parents after Evensong, I thought my heart would burst for joy.
Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing better things for them than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 831)
[to be continued]