When you are on Facebook and you see that two of your friends also know each other, and you have no clue how or from where, do you ever feel as though your life is flashing before your eyes?
Oprah calls these “full-circle moments.” Not being able to resist, I usually have to write a two-person private message that asks, “Okay, how to you two know each other?”
My mother has said, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” There is some truth in this old adage.
Another friend says, “The Episcopal Church has only about 20 people in it. We all change hats and vestments, but it’s always the same 20 people and we all know each other.”
Between previous parish posts, multiple universities and regular attendance at church music conferences and seminars, six degrees of separation frequently turns into one or two for me.
At the risk of being self-serving, this Sunday morning’s Offertory anthem at the 10:30 service is a full-circle moment for me. Within this anthem are two rounds of graduate school, a very happy six years in Houston, close friends and colleagues, and one of my top-10 favorite contemporary hymn tunes.
This original hymn tune Brewer, as arranged into an anthem setting, is named for my native-Houston friend Robert (Bob) Brewer, whom I met at Indiana University in the early 1990s when we were both students there. Bob was a child prodigy, excelling with the piano, organ, harp and cello, and could have sought performance degrees in any or all of them. I first heard this hymn tune set with the text, “Alleluia, song of gladness” (Hymn 122/123 in The Hymnal 1982), on a cassette tape of Bob’s choir singing Evensong as a guest choir in Kingwood, Texas.
“Cassette tape” tells you how long ago that was.
Singing in his choir at the time was Dr. David Ashley White, a prolific composer in many genres, composition professor and dean of the Moores School of Music of the University of Houston. David wrote this hymn tune, named it Brewer for Bob, and entered it into a composition contest, and won. Today this tune also appears in our hymnal supplement as a musical setting for a new canticle A Song of Wisdom (Hymn 905 in Wonder, Love, and Praise).
I love this tune for its natural rise and fall, producing a grand musical line. Its lyrical, forward-moving intensity brings the singer along, phrase by phrase. And David makes you wait for the musical climax: in the key of D Major, the top note of the first two phrases is only a C-natural. Only with the first note of the third phrase do we finally get the high-D, producing the feeling of a glorious arrival point. But then in the fourth phrase, with the same rhythm of the first two phrases, he changes and finally replaces the C-naturals with a reprise of this high-D, which is the tonic note of the tune. Sneaky, masterful, intensifying and musically rewarding, indeed.
And as our Rector frequently says, “But there’s more!” The Reverend Dr. Carl P. Daw, the author of this text, showed up at a Wednesday afternoon colloquium during my Yale days. “Who’s that,” I asked a friend. “Oh, that’s Carl Daw.” Yes, the Carl Daw, religion professor at the University of Connecticut at the time, Episcopal priest, native of Louisville, graduate of Sewanee, member of the The Hymnal 1982 editorial committee and now, immediate past executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
Carl is the author of hundreds of hymn texts and poems (not an exaggeration), and in 2014, we seriously considered five of his texts to become our Holy Communion parish hymn. Composer William Bradley (Bill) Roberts, who wrote music for our hymn, and Carl have been friends for decades. Bill strongly encouraged us to consider Carl’s work, with which I was completely on-board. Indeed, Carl’s texts are still in consideration for future Holy Communion projects.
And finally, this anthem was commissioned by and is dedicated to the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, a nationally known annual summer conference just down the road from Memphis. This conference was started years ago at All Saints School in Vicksburg but has moved in recent years to the Bishop Gray Conference Center, which is even near Memphis.
I have waited many years to find just the moment and liturgical occasion to use this anthem, and this Sunday is it. Carl’s text and David’s tune are a perfect marriage of text and tune, and the Last Sunday of Epiphany, when the Gospel reading is the account of the Transfiguration, is the perfect moment. The point is made by this poem’s second stanza:
Light breaks upon our darkness, splendor bathes the flesh-joined Word,
Moses and Elijah marvel as the heavenly voice is heard.
Eyes and hearts behold with wonder how the Law and Prophets meet:
Christ, with garments drenched in brightness, stands transfigured and complete.
Ponder this loaded Epiphanytide and Tranfiguration imagery: Light breaks, our darkness, splendor bathes, behold with wonder, garments drenched in brightness. And how about “flesh-joined Word” – have you ever heard a stronger, more vivid reference to Jesus Christ? How perfect is that phrase, especially coined for Epiphany, the season in which we celebrated Jesus coming down to earth!
I am grateful for your forgiveness of the name-dropping in this blog this week. Come to cheer on our Parish Choir, for whom I am also most grateful, as they sing this fabulous text and tune on Sunday morning.