A Music Advent Calendar – 4. Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

Of the Father’s Heart Begotten has always been a favourite carol of ours.  I remember hiring the music from OUP for the first Christmas orchestra I ever organised for St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, while a student.  We later had the hymn at our wedding.

The hymn is based on the Latin poem Corde natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius, and there are various translations available, the most popular from J M Neale and Henry Baker and is most common sung to a metrical version of the plainchant Divinum mysterium.

The hymn talks of the Lord Jesus, born of the love of the Father’s heart, Alpha and Omega, the Word by whom all things were created, the promised Saviour foretold by the prophets, born in frailty to die to save us. The final verse, particularly in this arrangement below with a soaring descant by Sir David Willcocks, lifts our hearts to praise with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

At the Cantus Firmus Trust Advent Service, Coming Soon to a World Near You, as this post is published (Sunday 4th December 2016) we will be singing these words from Jubilate Hymns. If you are reading this on Sunday morning it’s not too late to join is and sing this wonderful hymn with us.

1 God of God, the uncreated,
love before the world began;
he the source and he the ending,
Son of God and son of Man,
Lord of all the things that have been,
master of the eternal plan,
evermore and evermore!

2 He is here, whom generations
sought throughout the ages long;
promised by the ancient prophets
justice for a world of wrong,
God’s salvation for the faithful;
him we praise in endless song
evermore and evermore!

3 Happy is that day for ever
when, by God the Spirit’s grace,
lowly Mary, virgin mother,
bore the saviour of our race.
Man and child, the world’s redeemer
now displays his sacred face
evermore and evermore!

4 Praise him, heaven of the heavens,
praise him, angels in the height;
priests and prophets, bow before him,
saints who longed to see this sight.
Let no human voice be silent,
in his glory hearts unite
evermore and evermore!

Corde natus ex parentis Jubilate Hymns version after Prudentius (348 – c.410), J M Neale (1818 – 1866), and H W Baker (1821-1877)
© Jubilate Hymns Ltd

A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 1. Lo He Comes

While there is more and more Christmas music available on CD and the radio and online, in some evangelical churches the traditional carols seem to be increasingly absent, which is a shame, perhaps because they don’t lend themselves to being played by a worship band.

There is so much wonderful truth – and some rather good backstories – in Advent and Christmas music, so for the next 24 days I thought I would draw attention to some of my favourites.

Where better to start than with Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.

According to the admirable notes from the New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), this hymn was written in the early days of Methodism, and based on a hymn by the Moravian John Cennick, whose original starts with the unlikely lines “Lo! he cometh; countless trumpets / Blow before his bloody sign.”

The tune first appeared in a publication by the Revd Martin Madan whose own story is about as colourful as John Cennick’s verse.[1]

But to return to the hymn, surely this is one of the greatest celebrations and anticipations of Jesus’ return, praying with Paul: “O come quickly!” – while not pulling any punches over how Jesus will be received by those who have rejected him.

Words and tune are a perfect match and always sum up Advent for me.

[1] According to the NOBC, Martin Madan was a dissipated man who underwent a sudden conversion after hearing Wesley preach (he had gone to mock his mannerisms), and eventually became a warden of a hospital for women suffering from fatal venereal infections. As a result of seeing these women driven onto the streets by poverty and the shortage of marriageable men, he wrote a treatise “…which advocated Polygamy as the lesser evil.  Forced to resign from the hospital in the resulting furore, Madan spent the rest of his life quietly in Kew, translating literary and theological works from the Latin.” As you would. 

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.

 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.

 

 

Love divine, all loves excelling

As a diversion from Bach I was listening yesterday in the car to a lovely album of Purcell from Voces8 – including a beautiful rendition of his song Fairest Isle (words by Dryden) from the semi-opera King Arthur (1691).

I started singing Wesley’s hymn, Love Divine all loves excelling, to the same tune and realised how well it fitted. Consulting Wikipedia I discovered that indeed the hymn was originally written to the tune of that song, using the words of the first stanza as a model for Wesley’s own first verse.

While Dryden had written the following:

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures, and of loves;
Venus here, will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.

Wesley’s is as follows:

Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.

What is more the latest Methodist Hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms, contains the hymn set to Purcell’s tune in a version from John Wesley’s Sacred Harmony of 1780.

It’s a haunting melody and wonderful words that ought to be re-united more often, as here.

Sabbatical musings

During the first few months of 2015 I am taking a mini-semi-Sabbatical from Church, and also from all but one of the choirs that I seem to have started leading over the past few years.  Due to some changes at work I am also managing to take every Friday off and and planning some reading and informal study around anything that interests me, but primarily (unsurprisingly) Word and Music.

Watch this space for I hope much more regular updates on what I am reading and discovering about Bach, music, theology, singing, the Bible and connections between them.

What’s the purpose? Apart from to re-group and re-fresh and listen to any fresh revelations of His purpose, I think (to quote from a talk I heard last weekend) “the goal is God”.  A greater understanding of who He is, leading to greater worship.  And if there’s one thing I am seeing more clearly than ever, understanding comes through hearing the Word and putting it into practice.

If you want to check up on me through this, then hold me to those overarching goals.

Satan hates music

While in  UK churches the so-called “Worship Wars” have to a large extent abated (although not completely), in the US they are still in full swing.

I was debating with someone from the US on facebook just now about “Contemporary Christian Music” and whether it’s all ungodly rubbish, and found myself asking, why is the church always dividing over music?

I think it must be because God LOVES music and created it for our good and for us to use to worship Him. Why else are there so many commands to Sing to the Lord in the Bible? Bach (who might have known something about it) said that

The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.

Is it a surprise then, that Satan HATES music and will do all he can to pervert it away from its God glorifying purpose?

C.S.Lewis’s Screwtape (the senior devil in Screwtape Letters) says this:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.