In March every year, the Holy Communion Ringers, our parish handbell choir, attends a local handbell festival. The festival, River City Ring, is sponsored by the West Tennessee Handbell Association, an affiliate of the Handbell Musicians of America. Church of the Holy Communion maintains memberships in both the local and national organizations.
While our local handbell festival usually includes 10-15 choirs from around the region, some handbell festivals feature upwards of 75 choirs performing all at once. These festivals are daylong events at least, and the day includes rehearsals throughout, normally culminating in a late-afternoon concert. Nationally known handbell clinicians are invited to conduct, and the participants learn and practice handbell techniques and perform challenging literature.
One of the 2018 River City Ring compositions, which we played at the festival this past March, is a special piece written by our own Sondra Tucker. Longtime residents of Memphis, Sondra and her husband Roger moved to Houston some years ago, where she became the organist and music director of Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
Returning to Memphis after only a few years, Sondra was deeply moved by the devastation and destruction left by Hurricane Harvey in September 2017. Emmanuel Church was hit especially hard, and the parish has not yet returned to its building.
To aid in the efforts of rebuilding Emmanuel Church, Sondra composed "Grace All Sufficient," titled from a phrase from the hymn text "How firm a foundation." She crafted this piece using four separate hymn tunes, the DIES IRAE chant ("Day of wrath, day of mourning"), RESTORATION ("I will arise and go to Jesus"), FOUNDATION ("How firm a foundation"), and KING'S WESTON ("At the Name of Jesus").
In Sondra's own words:
The story of the piece is about the journey of our Houston church, which flooded when they released water from the dams after Hurricane Harvey, composed in four main sections:
1. I chose to begin the piece with the DIES IRAE to represent the catastrophe. I remember sitting in my den here in Memphis and seeing our Houston church on CNN with four feet of sludgy water inside, with boats ripping up and down the street in front. The storm itself and its immediate aftermath was the day of reckoning, as lined out in the DIES IRAE text. The emotional and spiritual reckoning continues, albeit in a different way, so I chose to continue the DIES IRAE in the connective material and inner lines of the four sections. This emotional reckoning often manifests itself in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a real problem, affecting most everyone in Houston.
2. The cross rhythms in the section played by handbell mallets exemplify the currents of the actual water in the immediate aftermath of the flood, when the scope of the disaster is so daunting that all one can do is pray. For this section, I chose the hymn, "I will arise and go to Jesus" (RESTORATION).
3. The title of the piece is taken from the hymn featured in the third section, "How Firm a Foundation" (tune FOUNDATION), which contains the line, "When through the deep waters thy pathway will lie, my grace all-sufficient will be thy supply." The faith of people of Emmanuel Episcopal Church will carry the parish through the tough times of the rebuilding, conflict, and discerning the path forward.
4. The triumphant ending, which in real life has yet to happen, uses the hymn "At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow" (tune KING'S WESTON). In truth, Emmanuel Church continues to struggle with rebuilding decisions, always reforming, always perfecting. The entire work ends with a huge C-Major chord - no sharps, no flats, the purest sonority possible.
All proceeds from the sale of "Grace All Sufficient" go to Emmanuel Church, Houston. This Sunday morning (May 6), the Holy Communion Ringers will play this piece for the first time in worship, the last Sunday the ringers will play for this choir season. And CHC parishioners Sondra and Roger will be playing in our handbell choir, as they have all year.
I have never conducted a choir with the composer performing in the ranks, and conducting "Grace All Sufficient" on Sunday will be a privilege for me, especially because I have Houston ties myself. Join us Sunday morning as we honor and pray for Emmanuel Church, Houston.