Only a few weeks ago I wrote a blog entitled “Old tunes, new tunes.”
And today I still have the old and the new on my mind, but for a different reason.
Perhaps I have the old and the new on my mind in this historic season of construction and remodeling at Church of the Holy Communion. Look out of one window of my office, and you will see old buildings. Look out the other window, and you’ll see a new brick building and yet-to-be-completed sidewalk and grand staircase.
Walk out of my office door, and you will see brand new construction: a fancy new parish staff breakroom, which we have never had before. Then walk around the corner, down a long corridor and around another corner, and you will arrive in a newly completed music suite.
I frequently have the old and the new on my mind when considering liturgical music planning: a new tune with old words, an old tune with new words, and the like.
However, this Sunday’s Parish Choir choral offering conjures up a different conversation: a contemporary British composer writing a modern anthem that sounds in an old style.
Whether or not we love Baroque music (I happen to love it), scholarly musicians must study it and try to understand it because from it we learn so much about many of the rudiments of music.
Tradition says that Mozart always talked negatively about “the old style,” considering himself and his contemporaries as composers writing in “the new style.” And then along came Beethoven, himself a definite new-style, who always “reckoned” himself “among the great admirers of Mozart.”
And the rest, as they say, is music history.
Ever on the quest, our Parish Choir anthem for this Sunday crossed my desk in a sample music packet and caught my attention. This parish loves the genre of hymnody that we consider in the “shaped-note” style, that style of Early American song where the printed notes also had different shapes. Those who did not read music in the traditional manner could learn the shapes and sing.
The 19th century produced innumerable collections of shaped-note collections containing some of today’s favorite hymns: “How firm a foundation” (The Sacred Harp), “What wondrous love is this” and “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult” (Southern Harmony), “Amazing grace” (Virginia Harmony), “Forgive our sins as we forgive” (Kentucky Harmony).
These hymns are characterized by simple melody, simple intervals, and only a few basic, closely-related chords, often in open position (a three-note triad chord with the middle note omitted, an “open-fifth” interval).
Sunday’s anthem, “Lord Jesus, think on me,” sounds as though the tune could have come from one of the collections mentioned above, and yet it was composed in 2011 by British-born composer Derek Healey (b. 1936), who printed “in the Shaped-Note Style” beneath his anthem title.
Healey was born in Wargrave, Berkshire, England, and studied composition with Herbert Howells (a father of Anglican church music) and Harold Darke (of “In the bleak midwinter” fame).
He taught at the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, and the University of Oregon. For the last ten years of his career, he returned to England to teach at the Royal Air Force School of Music before retiring and settling in Brooklyn, New York, where he continues to actively compose.
Healey’s shaped-note imitational composition is quite successful to my ears. The style allows the text, which is also found as Hymn 641 in The Hymnal 1982, to come through unencumbered, speaking for itself.
Lord Jesus, think on me, and purge away my sin;
from harmful passions set me free and make me pure within.
Lord Jesus, think on me, with care and woe oppressed;
let me thy loving servant be and taste thy promised rest.
Lord Jesus, think on me, nor let me go astray;
through darkness and perplexity point thou the heavenly way.
Lord Jesus, think on me, that, when the flood is passed,
I may the eternal brightness see and share thy joy at least.
Synesius of Cyrene (375-414)
By the way, this text just happens to be one of the oldest texts in our hymnal.
A new anthem, written in an old style, as a choral setting for one of the oldest texts in the book – another old and new conversation for another day.
Photo Credit: The Old and the New, stock photo, www.freeimages.com. Used by permission.