This Sunday's (February 17) Gospel reading is one of the passages that we know as the Beatitudes, Jesus' sermon where he used the format, "Blessed are the..."
I have written in this blog before about my career-long quest for "mustard seed anthems." Jesus often spoke in parables, and some of them are more obvious than others. "Having the faith of a grain of mustard seed" is one of those parables in which I search for anthems to illuminate the text.
Many have said that I should just compose one myself. My excuse has always been that I do not have the patience to write down the music; however, now that we own the Finale music writing software, I no longer have much of an excuse.
Truth is that I have also been on a career-long search for worthy musical settings of the Beatitudes, but for a different reason. The Beatitudes come up in our lectionary cycle fairly often, and I am always looking for different and fresh anthem settings.
We have a great setting of the Beaitudes in our Episcopal hymnal, a chant-like hymn from the Russian Orthodox music tradition, which we enjoy singing. And over the years, I have collected a few anthem settings for our parish music library.
However, this year the Parish Choir has tackled a new-to-us setting by the composer Bob Chilcott, and it is not an easy piece of music to read or sing.
A British native, Chilcott is a composer, conductor and singer himself. He began as a boy chorister and later was a choral scholar in the famed Choir of King's College, Cambridge. He then sang for many years in the professional choir, The King's Singers.
Chilcott's compositional style is known for its close-knit harmonies, key changes and strict word-painting. His anthem "The Beatitudes," which the Parish Choir will sing this Sunday, is a prime example.
The choir has worked hard on it. The members have to listen carefully to each other, and the harmonies are not as obvious as they look on paper.
And they have to negotiate drastic key changes without batting an eye or or falling off the cliff: E Major (four sharps) to C-flat Major (seven flats) to F Major (one flat), sometimes all within a span of eight or so measures.
These key changes build up the intensity and are most effective. But they are not easy, to say the least.
Choir directors will say that such anthems "are good for us," and I agree. Any parish choir worth its salt needs to keep challenging itself and growing musically.
We have challenged ourselves with this Sunday's Offertory anthem, and I hope and pray that it is an effective addition to our worship.