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.

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!

Music for Easter Day

It’s almost time… what might people sing tomorrow? Or even tonight?

Easter Day tends to be a time for combining strong opinions about music people know and love with exhausted church musicians who have been at church more than home for the past week. Easter Eve, if you have a service then, is similar, but often with a smaller congregation. So while there’s plenty on the Easter page here, it can be more challenging at Easter than at some other times to make changes to “the usual” music.

This is a great shame, not least because of the role of women in the discovery that Jesus was not, as expected, in the tomb, but risen. Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s Dialogo fra Maria Magdalena details that Easter morning scene at the empty tomb in a conversation between Mary Magdalen and two angels. It’s set for SAAT and continuo, and there’s a recording on Youtube:

…okay, maybe that’s more the sort of thing for an Easter afternoon concert than your average parish Eucharist. It’s great stuff, though; do have a listen.

Judith Ward has a unison setting of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” which is thoughtfully and charmingly composed, with a piano accompaniment that supports the singers without resorting to doubling every note — and there are a couple of bars of unaccompanied voice every once in a while. It would work well for a small choir or even a solo singer, and I think the piano part would transfer well to the organ, too. It’s available from the Small Choirs International site — you’ll have to scroll down or search for it, though.

If you’re after something crunchier, Libby Larsen has an a capella Alleluia — there’s a media player of some sort in that page, which I can’t embed here. It’s published by Schirmer and there are a few pages of a perusal score.

I could go on and on here, but there are several more weeks of Easter to come and I don’t want to use everything up! So I’ll end with some organ music. Alison Willis has a set of Three Easter Chorale Preludes at Composers’ Edition, available for purchase in deadtree or download format. Here’s one of them, Paschalia, on Soundcloud: