For the first time, this week’s NOTES: Music & Liturgy is in retrograde, to coin a musical term.
The 20th Century contemporary composers, working with 12-tone or aleatory music, could state their 12-tones in order and then in retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion. Here I am only backing up a Sunday rather than inverting it or backing up and inverting it.
However, this backing-up is intentional, as our Holy Communion Ringers played for the 10:30 service on Sunday, and one of the pieces has a story that must be told.
On Saturday, our handbell choir attended the River City Ring festival, an annual event we have attended for several years. Some 10-15 handbell choirs from the region register for the festival, commit to learn five pieces and enjoy the day, playing bells together in a massed setting.
The festival is sponsored by the West Tennessee Handbell Association, an affiliate of Handbell Musicians of America, of which Church of the Holy Communion is also affiliated.
The local association board selects the music and invites a nationally known clinician and director to lead the day. Most often, at least two to three pieces composed or arranged by the clinician are featured.
Cathy Moklebust, a handbell composer I have watched for decades (her compositions and arrangements are always solid), was the clinician, and the festival repertoire included three of her pieces. Our ringers played two of them Sunday morning, including the one with a story.
A Congregational (UCC) church in Ohio lost one of its handbell ringers to cancer some years ago. It was an aggressive form, and she died quickly. The handbell choir, along with her family, wanted to commission a handbell arrangement of “Beautiful Savior,” one of her favorite hymns. They wanted a fitting tribute, but they also wanted a musical description of the emotions in such a loss.
Magically and appropriately, this arrangement begins with a single F bell above middle C, followed by the next hymn tune note, middle G. These bells were the very position that the deceased played in her handbell choir. A fitting and touching tribute immortalized!
Stanza one is softer and meditative. Stanza two is composed in the relative minor key, implying pain, sadness and grief. After a section that depicts suffering, illness, pain and even anger toward God, a huge chordal transition blossoms into a return of the beautiful tune for stanza three, which speaks to the promise of eternal life, free from pain and struggle.
The end of the piece returns to the lone middle-F and middle-G bells. And the final ending is a rich G-flat major progression that floats right up to heaven.
This German hymn tune Schönster Herr Jesu (“Most beautiful Lord Jesus”) is known in our hymnal as St. Elizabeth. There are numerous translations of the German texts; many denominations sing “Beautiful Savior, Lord of all creation” while we sing “Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature.” However, this is basically the same text.
Here is contemporary Lutheran translation of “Beautiful Savior,” which may be compared to Hymn 383 in our hymnal, The Hymnal 1982.
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I'd love Thee, truly I'd serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.
Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands,
robed in flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer;
he makes our sorrowing spirit sing.
Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,
bright the sparkling stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
than all the angels in the sky.
Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
now and forevermore be Thine!
The Holy Communion Ringers at the 2018 River City Ring at Mullins United Methodist Church in Memphis: From left, are Jane VentersDike, Kay Farrish, Erika Wanner, Stephanie Dent, Irene Buchanan, Jennifer Garst, Liz Crowder, Sondra Tucker, Roger Tucker, Mary Webster and Sylvia Cox.