Posts Tagged 'Music'

Gert van Hoef and Michael Kearney: Livestream from Veenendaal

Next Thursday I look forward to joining my friend Gert van Hoef in the Dutch town of Veenendaal for a livestreamed organ concert at the Oude (Hervormd) Kerk. The concert will air at 20:00 Central European time, or 2 p.m. Eastern in North America. I hope you can join us!

You can read my interview with Gert last year for Christian Renewal Magazine here.


Psalm 138: The Better Composer

Few psalms exude the combination of confidence and humble faith that are present in Psalm 138.

The Genevan tune of Psalm 138 has been a personal favorite since long before I knew it was the Genevan tune of Psalm 138. In my childhood, Family Radio was often playing in the background in our house, and on occasion I would hear a lively and engaging panflute and organ duet and wonder what it was. It was the Dutch panflutist Noortje van Middelkoop and organist Harm Hoeve, in fact, playing a fantasia on Psalm 138.

As I got ready to leave for college, Psalm 138 took on new significance, as I pondered the prayer at the end of the psalm: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” As a college student, I was chronically uncertain about my major and eventual vocation, and I looked with anxiety at peers who seemed to have their life already clearly in focus. Each time I practiced the organ, I would end by playing the Genevan tune of Psalm 138. My comfort then, and my comfort now, is that glorious promise. God will bring his own work to completion at the proper time. Thus, Psalm 138 is an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6: “Being sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Last year, I finally put an end to a suite for organ based on the Genevan tune of Psalm 138, including the last stanza that I had played so often in college. I recorded the second movement/stanza of that suite at a Dominican church in Poznan, Poland, but was a long way from being satisfied with it. I tweaked and tweaked the music until it was barely recognizable. Then, midway through the editing, I realized the piece I was searching for had already been written.

Feike Asma (1912-1984) often performed a beautiful fantasia inspired by the first stanza of the Dutch rendition of Genevan Psalm 138. Actually, his improvisation contains three complete stanzas of the melody, so even though his focus may have been on the first portion of the psalm, I like to think of this piece as moving through the whole text in order. It begins softly, meditatively, exploring the inner recesses of the human heart for reasons to praise the Lord. There is a poignant leap within the first line of the melody, a motif which Asma exploits during the prelude with increasing pitch and intensity. A canonic section follows in which the right hand plays a softer chordal version of the chorale tune and the left hand gives a solo rendition. In an interlude, Asma adds color and depth to the organ registration, leading to a second stanza with the melody in the pedals. Finally, the registration expands to full organ in an Allegro section with a rapidly rising chromatic sequence based on the second half of the psalm’s opening line, leading to a majestic chorale.

All that was needed was a beautiful Dutch organ on which to record this wonderful psalm, and I found that organ in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a three-manual mechanical organ built by the Flentrop Orgelbouw firm of the Netherlands in 1977. It’s the real deal. It was a great privilege to be able to play and record here, and I am thankful to cathedral organist Todd Wilson for the ability to do so.

There’s a spiritual lesson to share through these brief anecdotes. My busy efforts to produce a composition on Psalm 138 did not lead to any lasting fruit. The real music only came when I realized that a far better composer had already written a piece I could never have imagined. The same holds for our lives: I can spend untold exertion trying to write the perfect story for myself, or I can rest in the assurance that the Author and Finisher of my faith, not me, holds the pen. God is the better composer. His promises will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. He will not forsake the work of his hands.


Organ Recital: “The Holy Spirit: Our Comforter”

Gathering and preparing the music for an organ concert is often a spiritually enriching experience. In this case, I have been asked to prepare a concert that centers on the themes of Ascension Day and Pentecost, celebrating the reign of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s common for Christians to think about praying in the Spirit or through the Spirit, but not praying or singing to the Spirit. And yet there is no shortage of wonderful psalms and hymns that specifically address the vital role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Psalms 25 and 42, although not specifically directed to the Spirit, come to mind as beautiful testimonies to the comforting work that the Spirit performs in believers’ hearts.

If you’re in the New York metropolitan area, consider coming out to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville on May 27 to enjoy this music live–a rare treat in the age of coronavirus. Attendance is free, but you’ll need to sign up at this link since capacity is limited to 65. If you’re not able to make it, look up some translations and Internet recordings of the pieces below, and meditate on the incomprehensible gift of the Spirit.


  • Fantasia super “Komm, heiliger Geist,” BWV 651/Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750
  • Fantasie Psalm 25:1/Willem Hendrik Zwart, 1925–1997
  • Orgelbüchlein, Pentecost section, BWV 631-633/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Fantasie over Psalm 42:3, 5/Feike Asma, 1912–1984
  • Overture from “St. Paul”/Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
  • Chorale prelude on “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier,” BWV 731/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Improvisation on MELITA (Navy Hymn)/Michael Kearney, 1995–
  • “Finlandia,” Op. 26/Jean Sibelius, 1865–1957

Unto me, O Lord Jehovah,
Show thy ways and teach thou me;
So that, by thy Spirit guided,
Clearly I thy paths may see.
In thy truth wilt thou me guide,
Teach me, God of my salvation;
All the day for thee I bide,
Lord, with eager expectation.

trans. Samuel G. Brondsema, 1931


Prelude and Fugue on Psalm 65

Spring has arrived, and here in the northeastern United States we are entering a wonderful season of longer days and long-awaited sunshine. The birds start singing around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and don’t stop until sunset or later. There are signs of new life all around, and for a coronavirus-weary world, that brings new sources of hope and energy.

What I’ve just described is a scene I often associate with Psalm 65, which says, “You make the going out of the morning and evening to shout for joy” (v. 8 ESV). Psalm 65 is a song of thanksgiving, praising God as the hearer of prayers (vv. 1-2), the forgiver of sins (vv. 3-4), and the creator and preserver of the world and those who dwell in it (vv. 5-13). From beginning to end, this psalm is a long crescendo. It begins in the first person singular (“When iniquities prevail against me”) but quickly moves to the plural (“you atone for our transgressions”). As he views creation and humanity, the psalmist incorporates the voices of everything around him into an ensemble of praise. All of creation and all of time sing an unbroken song of thanksgiving to the ruler of all.

I’ve tried to capture this spirit of Psalm 65 in a new organ composition on the Genevan tune. Although not a lot of settings from the Genevan Psalter made it into either of them, both the blue Psalter Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal include the Genevan version of Psalm 65 (#116, “Forth from Thy courts, Thy sacred dwelling” in the blue Psalter Hymnal and #65B, “Praise waits for you, O God, in Zion” in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal).

In the original Genevan Psalter, the tune of Psalm 65 was also used for Psalm 72, so it’s possible to find organ literature on the same tune identified with either psalm. But I was thinking specifically of Psalm 65 here, particularly because of the imagery of a river. On one hand, there is the constant presence of sin that we carry with us as fallen people in a fallen world. With a bit of poetic liberty, the versification of the blue Psalter Hymnal calls it “a mighty stream of foul transgression.” But this is contrasted with the “river of God” mentioned in verse 9. This river provides the water of life which not only creates and sustains the physical world but also brings new spiritual birth and cleanses from sin.

The river comes into this arrangement of Psalm 65 in the fugue section. After a prelude that includes the complete statement of the chorale in a French overture style, the fugue quickly establishes a pattern of descending eighth notes following from the first phrase of the melody which continues and builds to the end of the piece. I included excerpts of the chorale throughout the fugue section which counterpoint with that initial subject and the pattern of eighth notes. Along the way, to highlight the “crescendo” aspect of the psalm I mentioned before, all the stops of the organ are gradually added (which is clunky work on a mechanical organ without a registrant!), leading to a dramatic final statement of the fugue subject in the pedals and driving into a concluding complete statement of the chorale with full organ.

I might use this as an extended prelude or postlude for a Thanksgiving service or another special occasion of praise. Or I might never use it liturgically–but in either case, it was a worthwhile musical exercise in seeking to capture the “shout of joy” communicated by all creation in praise to God.


And Guide Us When Perplexed

Where were you one year ago?

A year ago, I had just landed in Poland and was savoring the thought of a spring semester abroad filled with incredible sights, sounds, and tastes, along with plenty of rhetorical and musical adventures along the way. The Lord had other plans. Instead I spent three months mostly within the four walls of a Polish dormitory room, ordering in Uber Eats, attending classes online, and taking an occasional stroll through the park to restore my sanity. In many ways it was a wonderful time, but also very different than what I imagined. That was a very small burden compared to what so many individuals around the world experienced in the year 2020.

While there is optimism on the horizon and the latest figures seem to suggest that the pandemic is past its peak, the mental and emotional tolls of this past year are far from over. Statistics on suicides, overdoses, and other acts of desperation are grim. The lingering fear of exposure to other people will haunt interpersonal interactions for a long time to come. And there are at least two popular perspectives on a post-coronavirus world that leave me very troubled indeed.

The first is a cheerful kind of fatalism that encourages us to look at our circumstances as the “new normal.” Although this phrase is often meant as a kind reminder that our everyday lives may never look exactly as they did before the pandemic, it has a hollow ring to it–hollow because the “old normal” never existed in the first place. Human life never goes back to “normal” after a crisis; the very nature of history means that our lives are always changing and being changed. Technologies develop and grow obsolete. Nations form and die. Economies flourish and wane. Of course we are moving into a “new normal,” just as the world that emerged after 9/11 or the economic collapse of 2008 or countless other events revealed a “new normal.” To lecture coronavirus-weary souls that life will assume the form of a “new normal” is merely prim and patronizing.

But this phrase is more often used in a specific context to justify certain kinds of policies that came into existence with the pandemic and, behind those policies, to validate certain attitudes and beliefs about human life and relationships. And it is against those attitudes and beliefs that thoughtful Christians must conscientiously and categorically rebel. The rhetoric of the “new normal” is now being leveraged to support a vision of humans as powerless victims of unknown risks and dangers who depend upon constant watchful protection from technological and governmental experts, and thus to encourage the continuation of a culture of fear and suspicion toward other people. Even hinting that these attitudes should continue after the immediate concerns of the pandemic have passed is abhorrent.

Please do not tell me that the government regulating how many persons may attend a church service is the new normal. Please do not tell me that sticking thermometers in my mouth and responding to all kinds of violating health questions on a daily basis are the new normal. Please do not tell me that thinking twice before hugging my grandmother is the new normal. These measures have been temporary and important ways to protect the vulnerable from infection, but they carry their own tremendous cost of dehumanization. The places I care about are more than images on postcards and social media platforms. The work I do is more than staring at a laptop screen in my room from sunup to sundown. The people I love are more than their Zoom profiles. We are real, embodied beings in a real, physical world, made for real human contact with other imagebearers of God. If we cannot bear that amount of riskiness in our everyday dealings with other people, then far more is at stake in our society than the end of the pandemic.

But that leads me into the second line of public discourse: an equally unrealistic fantasy in which the pandemic ultimately disappears, whether through vaccination or through herd immunity or through an act of God, and every human trouble disappears with it. I sometimes wonder whether the coronavirus has become a scapegoat for all kinds of other disappointments and problems that accompany human life. If we could just get past the pandemic, so we tell ourselves, the world would be a rosier place. Perhaps it would. Perhaps it will. And yet there will be other pestilences, other wars, other famines, other disasters. The fact that this particular problem has accumulated the greatest global attention does not grant it the privilege of being the only thing wrong with the world. And so, for all the harrowing figures about emotional suffering during the pandemic, I sometimes worry those figures will only grow when coronavirus is gone and yet all kinds of sin and brokenness remain.

If we are truly to conquer the challenges that coronavirus has posed, we need a frame of mind that enables us to continue working in the midst of a fallen world without losing hope. We need an orientation that both lifts us above the haze of present concerns and also puts ground under our feet for wise living and faithful service. We need an awareness of the “already” and an acknowledgment of the “not yet.” In short, we need the kind of faithful watching and waiting described in Martin Rinkart’s hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Rinkart (1586-1649), according to, was a minister in Eilenberg, Germany, during the Thirty Years’ War. Faced with famine and pestilence throughout his city, Rinkart was responsible for conducting as many as forty or fifty funeral services per day. Somehow, in the midst of the upheaval of war, want, and disease, Rinkart found the words to write many hymns, including this one. It is not based on a psalm–in fact, it is a paraphrase of a doxology from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (50:22-24)–yet it distills the message of so many psalms of thanksgiving. “Now Thank We All Our God” expresses a simple trust in the Lord that perseveres through good times as well as bad.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

Trinity Psalter Hymnal #181

Personally, I can say that opportunities to play the organ have been such a gift in the midst of the pandemic. It’s a wonderful way to get myself out of my own head and away from my screens, to engage in an intensely tactile and physical activity, and to reflect on timeless truths about God and his world. The Dutch organist Feike Asma (1912-1984) composed a wonderful fantasy on “Now Thank We All Our God.” Although the hymn itself seems to be just as well known in the United States as it is in Europe, Asma’s arrangement has hardly received the publicity it deserves on this side of the Atlantic. I was grateful for the chance to record it on the magnificent Jaeckel organ in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Duquesne University where I study. This is an effervescent, even bombastic, treatment of a robust yet intimately comforting doctrine–the knowledge that it is our God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who has blessed us from our mothers’ arms and still is ours today. May that meditation be your comfort this winter.


URC Psalmody on YouTube

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