Posts Tagged 'Organ'

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.

–MRK

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 Hymnary.org, 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.

–MRK

Psalm 16: Where the Lines Fell to Me

Two reliable signs of a good psalm setting are (1) when it gets picked frequently at church events that include singing and (2) when it makes it into more than one songbook. Both those indicators are certainly present for Don McCrory’s tune for Psalm 16, which originally appeared as 16D in The Book of Psalms for Worship (2009). Since then, this beautiful melody has beecome a standard at church functions across the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and it has also been included as setting 16B in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018), albeit with a slightly different metrical setting.

I ran into Don McCrory while representing Geneva College at the joint synod and general assembly of the United Reformed Churches in North America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 2018. He is a kind gentleman, a member of an OPC in the Grand Rapids area. I took the opportunity to thank him for this tune (STERLING is its name), and his response was humble and earnest: “The Lord gave me that tune, and I’m just thankful it has been a gift to the churches.” Indeed, a gift it has been and continues to be.

Psalm 16 hits home in a number of ways, but a particular way in which it always convicts me is the verse which says, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (v. 6). The psalm invites believers to reflect on God’s providence to them over the course of their lives as they look forward to enjoying his presence someday forever.

What’s even more special is that this particular setting of Psalm 16 is itself part of my beautiful inheritance. If I had not attended Geneva, I might never have known this psalm. Now it is a part of my history and identity, and I share that gift with others who went to the same school and had the same melody implanted in their hearts.

I recorded this improvisation on Don McCrory’s tune STERLING in the empty sanctuary of a recently closed Methodist church in Beaver Falls, now the property of Geneva College. The organ hasn’t been tuned in who knows how long, and it’s not a concert instrument–just a humble little church organ with a warm and beautiful sound. Thanksgiving was on my mind. The lines have fallen in pleasant places. The property that the Lord provides is beautiful.

–MRK

Psalm 84: Highways to Zion

I have three recordings to share this week which fit together under the theme of Psalm 84.

I come back to this beautiful psalm again and again in seasons of anxiety and uncertainty. The text begins by extolling the courts of the Lord as the place where even a swallow can build a nest in safety for her young, and it ends by praising God as a sun and a shield who gives favor and honor. And in the middle, Psalm 84 includes the beautiful phrase: “How blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion!”

Now, some context for the three recordings.

I grew up savoring the Dutch-organ-psalm-improvisation genre, as I’ve mentioned before on this site. Not only is it hard to find this style of organ playing in America (let alone the sheet music for it!), but it is also difficult to find pipe organs that are built in a style that supports the music. What, exactly, do you need? I can only offer some amateur observations on this, but depending on the piece, you need three or four different characteristics in a pipe organ: (a) at least one manual with 8′, 4′, and 2 2/3′ flute stops, (b) a variety of mutations or Baroque solo voices such as Cornet, Sesquialtera, Crumhorn, etc., (c) mechanical key action and flexible winding to provide some fluctuation in pitch and attack, and (d) tremulants that are unified across the whole organ, or that at least synchronize with one another. If you’re an organist, you may be able to sympathize with how difficult it is to find a reasonably accessible instrument that satisfies all these criteria in the USA. (That’s why the organ at Dordt University is such a significant exception.) If you’re not, here’s the basic takeaway: unless you can find an organ with at least three of these characteristics, the music not only won’t sound authentic, it possibly won’t even sound pretty.

So, in my quest for organs in my regular haunts (Long Island and western Pennsylvania) that can handle Dutch psalm settings, I was excited to discover a 2-manual Flentrop organ about an hour north of Pittsburgh in a Presbyterian church in Slippery Rock. I visited last fall and recorded the first part of Jan Zwart’s Canonisch Voorspel (canonic prelude) on Genevan Psalm 84. It’s a good start, but the organ is really small, and without any tremulants available, the music seemed a little shapeless to my ear.

That’s why I was thankful for the chance to record the whole setting a second time earlier this month on the brand-new Peragallo pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, NY. Although the key action is electronic rather than mechanical, the tremulants and mutations give this recording a much warmer and fuller sound. I hope to visit the Flentrop again, but I now have a better idea of what music it can handle.

Both of the recordings above focus on the beautiful tune of Psalm 84 which came from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter and is still familiar in many countries in Europe today. The third recording is a new tune for Psalm 84, this one from Russia. I previously posted about Konstantin Zhigulin’s work and attempted to record this same improvisation on an organ in Wilkinsburg. Turns out, the tune lends itself far better to piano. This is an excerpt from the benefit concert I recently gave for Geneva College.

Each of these very different recordings affords an opportunity to meditate on the soul-settling truths contained in Psalm 84. The Lord is a sun and a shield, our hope and our song in the night . . . how beautiful are your dwelling places, O Lord!

–MRK

A Genevan Psalm Returns to Long Island

Recently I visited St. John’s Episcopal Church in the hamlet of Oakdale on Long Island’s south shore. This little congregation has the distinction of being the second oldest church in Suffolk County, and the present building predates the American Revolution. It was an interesting visit, not only because of the church’s age, but because of the likelihood that some of the earliest Dutch settlers to West Sayville, c. 1850, first worshiped with the Episcopalians in Oakdale before starting their own Reformed church in West Sayville in 1866.

In the back of the church is a tiny pipe organ built by George Jardine of New York, also around 1850. With one manual and three stops, an instrument like that doesn’t have a lot of versatility. But its tone is sweet and clear, perfect for the size of the sanctuary in which it is located. And it seemed fitting to play a Genevan tune, since it was the Dutch who brought the Genevan psalm tunes with them to New York.

The Genevan tune of Psalm 12 is included in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a cry of outrage and distress to a God of justice in the midst of a crooked and troubled world. The final stanza is a fitting refrain for the church today:

O LORD, you will preserve your people always,
and from this evil age keep us secure;
on ev’ry side the wicked strut and swagger,
as people honor all that is impure.

–MRK


URC Psalmody on YouTube

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