Posts Tagged 'Psalms'

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

Psalm 25: The Paths of the Lord

This month marks nine years (!) since my first attempts as an over-eager teenager to spark some discussions about the Psalms and church music on this blog. The Lord has ordained a series of events that have shaped my life into something much different than I could have imagined nine years ago. And that’s true on a global scale as well; could you have imagined nine years ago that we would be where we are today, politically and socially?

Certainly we are living at some kind of a crossroads in the history of the West, although it is not yet clear exactly what that crossroads may be. Crossroads can be places of great anxiety. In the past existential crises of my little life, I have often turned to the words of Psalm 25 for comfort. I’ve even written about Psalm 25 before on this site. Recently, Psalm 25 popped back into my head, this time through a particularly tranquil setting of the Genevan tune arranged by Dutch organist Willem Hendrik Zwart. Earlier this week I recorded this fantasy on a beautiful new pipe organ in Sayville, not far from the West Sayville URC.

Psalm 25 is a song about the paths of the Lord. Mercifully, it promises that he “instructs sinners in the way” (v. 8 ESV). Past failures and mistakes cannot separate the children of God from loving counsel and admonition in the way of Christ. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 10). Although we look at the world and the church and see great calamities and distress, we also look to a covenant-keeping God who will never change, and because he will never change, we will not be consumed. So the psalm concludes with a prayer of faith: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22).

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal includes a Genevan setting of Psalm 25 in its Selection A, “LORD, to You My Soul Is Lifted.” An earlier translation can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal, number 43. As you listen, reflect on the words of Psalm 25, either from one of these psalters or from the Scriptures, and allow the comfort and wise counsel of the Lord to point the way forward for you into 2021.

–MRK

Virtual Organ Recital to Benefit Geneva College

It has been a music-filled week, which is always a blessing in a time of plague. On Saturday I spent several hours with an audio-visual team at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls, PA, recording a pipe organ recital for Geneva College.

As a Christ-centered and Scripture-centered institution of higher education, Geneva is well prepared to weather the pandemic on both a spirtitual and a practical level. Nevertheless, the college is facing a several-million-dollar budget gap due to the unexpected expenses that COVID-19 has generated, combined with losses in tuition, room, and board. The college has asked alumni and friends to raise $1 million towards bridging this gap. I don’t have a million dollars to give, but I do have ten fingers and two feet–so this concert represents an opportunity to inspire others to support an institution that has contributed so much to my own spiritual development and the lives of many thousands more.

The concert is entitled “Welcome the Morning Star,” with a nod to the star that hangs on Geneva’s Old Main each Christmas season. For this program, I chose pieces that focused on the theme of light appearing in darkness, including a wide variety of psalm, hymn, and carol settings both old and new. The spiritual centerpiece of the concert is Konstantin Zhigulin’s setting of Psalm 84, “My God and King,” which I have previuosly talked about here.

The recital will broadcast on URC Psalmody’s YouTube channel at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, December 18. The program is below:

Processional on Personent hodie – Michael R. Kearney, b. 1995

Chorale prelude on “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” BuxWV 223 – Dietrich Buxtehude, c. 1637–1707

Nouveau Livre de Noëls, op. 2 – Louis-Claude Daquin, 1694–1772
               10. Grand jeu et Duo

Cathedral Windows, op. 106 – Sigfrid Karg-Elert, 1877–1933
               3. Resonet in laudibus
               4. Adeste fideles

12 Pièces nouvelles pour orgue – Théodore Dubois, 1837–1924
               
8. Fiat lux                                                   

Chorale prelude on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645 – J. S. Bach, 1685–1750

Morgensonne (“Sunrise”), op. 7, no. 1 – Sigfrid Karg-Elert, 1877–1933

Liedbewerkingen – Gert van Hoef, b. 1994
               Nu zijt wellekome
               God rest ye merry, gentlemen/Carol of the bells 

Improvisation on Konstantin Zhigulin, “My God and King” (Psalm 84) – Michael Kearney, b. 1995

Sixth Organ Symphony, op. 42, no. 2 – Charles-Marie Widor, 1844–1937
               1. Allegro

I hope you can join me virtually on December 18 as an expression of support for this faithful Christian institution.

–MRK


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