Music for Sunday, 29th April: Easter 5, Year B

The readings for this week are:

Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4 or Genesis 22:1-18
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

It’s still Easter, so you still need that reading from Acts as the first or second reading; but now there’s an option on the first reading, so it could be either Baruch or Genesis.

The reading from Baruch is a sort of hymn in praise of wisdom, and associating wisdom with the commandments of God.

Genesis is the command to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham’s obedience until God calls the whole thing off and sends a ram instead. To say that this is one of the more difficult texts in the Hebrew Scriptures is something of an understatement: the expectation that Abraham, in his faithfulness, should be willing to sacrifice his son; the idea that God would ask such a thing, even if it was only a test; and there isn’t much in there about how poor Isaac feels about the whole thing, or his obedience to his father. One Christian interpretation is that the ram is an allegory for Christ — the Lamb of God — who dies so that we don’t have to.

That Lamb is central to the reading from Acts, too, in which Phillip meets an Ethiopian eunuch (don’t let anyone tell you gender was binary in the ancient world) who asks him about a passage from Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.” The eunuch asks to be baptized, and Phillip is happy to oblige.

Psalm 22 is appropriate to a set of readings where we are hearing about sacrifice — this is the psalm that Jesus was quoting when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross. The portion of it for today is rather more cheerful than that, though, detailing that all who seek him shall praise the Lord, all the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations, even the dead.

1 John is still exploring the idea that God is love, and what that means for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This idea of abiding in love, dwelling in love, is very beautiful.

The Gospel reading is Jesus talking about being the True Vine. He talks about pruning: pruning of dead, fruitless branches, but also of the live ones to make them bear more fruit. And then this language of abiding returns: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”

What music, then? The Lord as sheep rather than shepherd is worth exploring, and the Agnus Dei is an obvious text, so have a look at Mass settings. Ramona Luengen has a lovely Missa Brevis for SSAA a cappella, which you can purchase and listen to on Soundcloud; the Agnus Dei begins at about 3:43:

Jocelyn Hagen has a setting of Blake’s The Divine Image which I think might also be suitable, particularly for the last couplet:
“Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.”

The language, being Blake, is simple and straightforward, if slightly antiquated — but the idea that “all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew” is certainly relevant to the idea that we should love our brothers and sisters, and is also a good mirror to the psalm’s proclamation that all the nations of the earth will worship God. I’m not really doing Blake’s text justice, here, but this is not a poetry blog! The work is for treble choir, SSATB, piano and oboe, and you can see a perusal score and order a download or hardcopy at Jocelyn Hagen’s website; I couldn’t find a recording online.

Of course, when talking about God as love, Ubi caritas is always appropriate. I mentioned two settings in my post for Maundy Thursday but I’m sure there are many more by women! For example, there’s a lively SATB+divisi version by Emily Feld which you can listen to and purchase via MusicSpoke, or listen to on Soundcloud:

Music for Sunday, 22nd April: Easter 4, Year B

The readings for this week are:

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:9-13
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

(Still Eastertide, so you’re still meant to use Acts as the first or second reading — omitting either the Old Testament reading or the Epistle.)

Genesis is the story of the Flood, including the rainbow afterward, the sign of God’s covenant with every living thing, never again to destroy all the earth by flood.

Acts is another scene where Peter is telling people that healing has happened because of Jesus Christ, and quoting to them the scripture about the stone that has been rejected becoming the cornerstone.

Psalm 23 is a psalm of thanksgiving for all the care and safety and blessings bestowed on the psalmist by the Lord, as a shepherd.

1 John talks about recognising Jesus’s love for us by the fact that he laid down his life for us, and reminding the readers of the letter (and us) that we should, in turn, love one another.

The Gospel reading is Jesus saying “I am the Good Shepherd” and all that follows from that.

With all the sheep/shepherd imagery, there really is no excuse for not having music by a woman this week, given that the tune CRIMOND, usually used for “The Lord’s My Shepherd,” was written by Jessie Seymour Irvine. It’s certainly well-known, and in many different hymnals.

There’s also a setting of the same psalm by Sungji Hong, which you can listen to on Youtube:

It’s a challenging piece for choir and congregation alike, needing a certain amount of concentration, but also very beautiful. I couldn’t find a score available for purchase online, but contacting her via her website would be a good option; there’s a good selection of choral music in her catalog of works, much of it with recordings available.

Music for Sunday, 15th April: Easter 3, Year B

The readings for this week are:
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

(The deal in Eastertide is that the reading from Acts is mandatory. So you could go Zephaniah, Psalm, Acts, Luke, or you could go Acts, Psalm, 1 John, Luke, or if you’re doing a service with just two readings it would be Acts and Luke.)

The section heading in the NRSV for the reading from Zephaniah is “A Song of Joy” and that seems to sum things up pretty well.

The reading from Acts starts in a slightly awkward place; Peter and John have just healed a man who couldn’t walk and he’s very happy about it, and as this happened at the Temple it’s causing a bit of a stir. Peter points out that it’s God’s power, not his own or John’s, that is behind this healing.

He also points out to this Temple crowd that they rejected Jesus; I’m always wary of anti-Semitic interpretations of this text and others like it. Given the location and timing it seems likely that he does mean them personally, that the Israelites he was addressing in the Temple that day were the same ones who had cried to Pilate to release Barrabas and crucify Jesus. Then he’s back to being a witness and to faith in the name of Jesus, and then he calls them “friends” and assures them that he knows they were acting in ignorance, and this is how the Scriptures were fulfilled; and he calls them to repent… and the reading ends, mid-sentence, much to the frustration of grammar pedants compiling pew slips (ask me how I know). But this call to repentance, pre-empted by a level of understanding of human frailty that suggests forgiveness is, at least, possible, brings to my own mind last week’s Gospel reading, in which the disciples are told “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It seems to me that the forgiveness and the faith and the healing are tangled up somehow, all intertwined in a redemption that we don’t always understand.

Psalm 4 is one I know well from Compline; a plea for deliverance that ends with an assurance of safety.

The reading from 1 John is a bit difficult: out of context it almost seems to be contradicting the idea that sins can be forgiven. But it begins by talking about the love of God for us, and looking beyond the point at which this week’s reading ends, it goes on to talk about how obeying the commandments of God means loving God and one another, not only in our words and thoughts but in our actions.

The Gospel reading is the one where Jesus comes to the disciples goes through the “yes it’s really me” rigamarole, and asks for something to eat and is given some fish. And then he explains things that seem to mirror the events in the reading from Acts: he explains that this is how the Scriptures have been fulfilled, and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”, and that they are witnesses of these things.

If you wanted a paraphrase of Psalm 4, I wrote a hymn tune to the one by Isaac Watts: the PDF is available online. But it’s very much an evening sort of hymn, and so might not fit well into a morning service.

A piece that is certainly suitable for Easter given the number of Alleluias, and seems to connect gratitude, the work of healing, and joy, is “May this be a working Alleluia” by Elizabeth Alexander. It’s for children’s choir with SATB and piano — and optional flute and two trumpets.

And, traditional for Easter 3 in particular, and at least relevant to the reading from Zephaniah, is the Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100). Here’s a Soundcloud recording of one in English by Caroline Lesemann-Elliott. I’m not sure where best to contact Caroline but she has been Musical Director of Voces Inauditae and their contact form is certainly one way to get in touch if you’d like a score.

Signal Boost: Aurora Nova choir at St Paul’s Cathedral, London

I mentioned on Thursday that the Aurora Nova choir would be singing d’Este’s O salutaris sostia on Sunday at St Paul’s. Well, that’s not all they’re singing. From a tweet by Sarah MacDonald, it looks like the music list is as follows:

11:30am Sung Eucharist:

Mass Setting — Missa Mariae, Cecilia McDowall
Anthem — O salutaris hostia, d’Este
Voluntary — Carillon, Kerensa Briggs
Hymns: 351, 342 (452), R&S 244 (Part II), 114 (I recognise some of these from the New English Hymnal and I don’t think they have music by women, but the ones that aren’t from NEH might; and I don’t know about the words, off the top of my head.)

3.15pm Evensong (Eve of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary):

Responses — Sarah MacDonald
Canticles — Magnificat and Nunc dimittis Regina caeli, Katherine Dienes
Anthem — Ave Maria, Roxanna Panufnik
Voluntary — The Tree of Peace, Judith Weir
Hymns: 181 (ii), 187, 186 (Again, from memory, I don’t think music for any of these hymns is by women, though I’m uncertain about the words.)

This is a pretty good lineup, and a strong challenge to the idea that music by women, or sung by women, isn’t suitable for “serious” cathedral services (scare quotes because ordinary parish services can be serious, too). It would be great to see more hymns by women, but perhaps for that we need to look more to the compilers of hymnals, as (especially in a cathedral context with a visiting choir) there is a strong tendency to want to stick to the book when it comes to congregational hymnody. I understand that the Revised English Hymnal, the successor to the New English Hymnal, will be published sometime this year; I hope that it offers a better gender balance than previous editions.

In any case, for my part I’m planning to go along to St Paul’s on Sunday; perhaps I’ll see you there.

Music for Sunday, 8th April 2018: Easter 2, Year B

This week’s readings are:

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

The deal in Eastertide is that the reading from Acts is mandatory. So you could go Exodus, Psalm, Acts, John, or you could go Acts, Psalm, 1 John, John, or if you’re doing a service with just two readings it would be Acts and John.

Exodus is the story of the parting of the Red Sea, and the drowning of the Egyptian pursuers.

Acts is the early Christian believers sharing their possessions in common, having no private ownership and ensuring anyone who needs anything receives it according to their need; this is not a new idea, as it’s also mentioned in Acts 2. When anyone tells you they try to model their religious life after what we know of the early church, it’s worth asking them how they carry out this part of the pattern.

Psalm 133 is about the wondrousness of dwelling together in unity (also the foundation of the generous sharing mentioned in Acts), likening it to abundant oil running down the head and beard and overflowing onto the collar, a very sacramental image. I love the idea of unity as blessing, as sacrament.

1 John is… complicated. The letter opens with a heartfelt description of what is being declared: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands,” and goes on to say that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all — and then to talk about what that means for our conduct, and especially about our honesty about our own sins. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But if we confess our sins we have Jesus Christ as an advocate.

John’s Gospel is the familiar tale of Jesus appearing to the disciples, or some of them at any rate, and breathing his Spirit into them, and with it the ability to forgive or retain sins. But Thomas isn’t there, and doesn’t believe it when they tell him about it; so a week later Jesus appears again, and Thomas recognises him by his wounds.

Easter 2 is also known as “Low Sunday”, though, mostly because after the exertions of Holy Week and Easter Day, exhaustion can set in. Clergy probably spent half the week in slump mode, and “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost, But now the organist is toast,” has been known to be uttered. Servers and vergers and so on are feeling the same. And in countries where the school holidays line up with the liturgical ones, you might find that the choir is all on holiday.

Nevertheless, if you do have a choir it’s well worth singing Melissa Dunphy’s a cappella, SATB setting of Acts 2:44-46: “And all they that believed were together and had all things common. Their possessions and goods they sold and divided them to all, according as every one had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart.” You can listen on Soundcloud and the music is available from Melissa Dunphy’s website, included with a download from Bandcamp:

If you’re after something much simpler, I have a piece called The Doubter based on St Thomas. It’s for unison and organ, though it could be divided up between upper and lower voices easily enough.

The other piece that would work might be a setting of O Salutaris Hostia: the text is really for Corpus Christi, but it works: Corpus Christi is about Christ’s body, which is a big deal in this week’s readings (both in the wounds shown to the disciples and Thomas, and in the unity of the church — the Body of Christ). And the plea for help (“bella premunt hostilia: da robur, fer auxilium” — “hostile wars press on us: give strength, bring aid.”) along with the idea of the Saving Victim being the Gate of Heaven, could serve as a reference to Christ as our advocate, but also as an allusion to the Exodus, in which the Israelites pass through the sea on dry land: they were surrounded by enemies and the parting of the sea acted as a sort of gate. There’s a setting attributed to Leonora d’Este as part of a set of 23 motets, Musica quinque vocum. More information on d’Este and the attribution given here is available from Musica Secreta on Youtube.

I’ll admit I cheated on this last one, though: it’s being sung on Sunday morning at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Aurora Nova choir. More on that later in the week!