openthouourlips

performing john stainer’s “the crucifixion”. again

I checked and it seems I have performed John Stainer’s oratorio “The Crucifixion” with the choir here at St Thomas Becket in Hamburg four times already (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). (We have to ask Jochim, organist in this parish for over 50 years, when it was done before I started working here!) In 2015 we performed a cantata on “Forty days and forty nights” which I composed. In 2016 we performed West Gallery Anthems interspersed in the reading of the Passion story.

Some people love Stainer’s “The Crucifixion”. It is quite popular. In other circles it is being ridiculed. To be honest I am always anxious when it’s on our programme. And after these years I cannot even say why I feel quite ambiguous about this piece.

It is a good composition. It is beautiful music. It is fun to sing. It’s manageable for parish choirs. It has its effects. It is also deeply spiritual: In the centre of the piece John Stainer placed the a capella anthem “God so loved the world”. After that central piece all the so called “Seven last words of Christ” are rendered by the mens’ choir. So Stainer clearly has highlighted – with a shimmering light like that of a Turner painting – what he considered to be the message of that story of broken trust, violence, suffering and death: That God loves this world.

So what exactly are my questions here?

Or are there just random personal issues triggered by performing Stainer’s “The Crucifixion”? We were not always lucky with the same bass soloists calling off his gig two years in a row. One year I thought the choir was behaving somewhat cocky never showing up to rehearsals and telling me everything would be just fine.

Well I guess my questions here are: Is this the right music to tell the story? (It certainly was the right music in 1887 one day after Ash Wednesday at St Marylebone Parish Church.) Is this the right music to tell the story today? What is the music saying about the suffering servant? What kind of reactions towards suffering in general does this piece present us with?

There was a telling moment at our last rehearsal when it suddenly became clear to me how Victorian this piece is. It’s on page 19 in the score: In the “Procession to Calvary” the choir addresses Christ saying “Then on to the end, my God and my Friend, / With Thy banner lifted high!” They do this two times, first in a minor, then in major key. First piano (soft), then forte (strong). There is no other link than strong chords by the organ between that soft mourning chant to the pompous march. Mourning turns to being confident of victory just like that. I am baffled by this change of mood without any process and development. Forgive me, but could that perhaps be compared to the oblivious naivete of young soldiers marching into wars?

So while presenting us with the story of a man whose life and death was about the kingdom “not of this world” Stainer’s “The Crucifixion” is also very much music from an old empire. One shouldn’t deny the Victorian aura of this piece. So today in 2017 this piece from the old empire meets the world of Brexit. And isn’t that just an interesting match?

We shouldn’t worry too much about these questions though. The choir just sounded so, so good at our last rehearsal – and speaking about our musical performance I think we know what we’re doing. That’s what we are going to offer on Palm Sunday evening. Everything else has to happen in the silence between the music.

a new carol: we sing to thee, emmanuel

Headaches after a sleepless night full of worries. Then I wrote a simple carol this morning. Honestly it’s the words which really pointed me to the music and it is the words which might carry me with gratefulness for what has been and hope for what is to come.

Here is the music.

The words are a selection of verses of “We sing to thee, Emmanuel” (1864), a translation by Elizabeth Frances Cox of Paul Gerhardt’s “Wir singen dir, Emmanuel” (1653).

1.
We sing to Thee, Emmanuel,
The Prince of Life, Salvation’s Well,
The Plant of Heaven, the Star of Morn,
The Lord of lords, the Virgin-born!

Emmanuel.

2.
Now Thou, by Whom the world was made,
Art in Thy Manger-cradle laid,
Maker of all things great, art small,
Naked Thyself, though clothing all.

3.
Thou Who both Heaven and earth dost sway,
In strangers’ inn art fain to stay,
And though Thy power makes angels blest,
Dost seek Thy food from human breast.

Emmanuel.

4.
Encouraged thus, our love grows bold
On Thee to lay our steadfast hold;
The Cross which Thou didst undergo
Has vanquished Death, and healed our woe.

5.
As each short year goes quickly round,
Our Alleluias shall resound;
And, when we reckon years no more,
May we in heaven Thy Name adore.

Emmanuel.

the moment before yes and no

In his hymn “No wind at the window” John Bell is setting the scene in the first verse for the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary who knows nothing yet about God’s plan with her and the world. And John Bell sets the scene by saying what’s not there on the scene on stage:

“No wind at the window, no knock on the door; / No light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor; / No dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear …”

Basically there are no props at all then. What suspense for a tale which was told a thousand times before! Of course this scene was also depicted in countless art work with Renaissance painters being curious about perspective and Baroque painters being all about symbolism. But let me repeat: John Bell paints this scene without any props. Is he even telling the story we’ve heard before so many times? The first verse doesn’t really give away that it’s a story from the bible. It ends after the list of what’s not there with: “Just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.”

The poet continues telling us what’s not there also in the last verse. After Mary (yes, verses 2 and 3 give it away then) has heard God’s request we find another list of what’s not being agreed upon:

“No payment was promised, no promises made; / No wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed. / Yet Mary consenting to what none could guess / replied with conviction – ‘Tell God, I say yes.’”

May I give you the story in four words then: Angel, Woman, Voice, Yes.

It could have been “Angel – Woman – Voice – No” of course. Even though I am fascinated by the power of that little everyday word ‘yes’ which gave birth to God – I feel that I am drawn more to that moment before ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It is that corner without any props. I mean there are the others who have their own agenda who want us to say ‘yes’. There are people out there who want us to buy more and more stuff. There are people out there who subscribe to the idea that bigger is better, people who just can’t get enough. Certainly there’s magic in an open and naked ‘yes’. Mary’s ‘yes’ has changed the course of the universe. But what really is fascinating is that sentient beings are even able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It is that nakedness of the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ which makes us experience ourselves. And we must seek that corner without probs and we must mute the voices of the others to hear the ‘one voice’ in order to say our open and naked ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And we must give each other the space to be alone in that moment before ‘yes’ and ‘no’ called freedom. Don’t preach at me telling me to follow Mary’s example. (Sorry if I did!) Let’s just hope that she wasn’t bullied by an angel into agreeing to God’s agenda. Let’s hope that she said her ‘yes’ father from that corner called freedom. I wish there was a positive fairy tale about saying ‘no’. But who is going to say ‘no’ to God and live to tell the tale? But there should be a tale like that. Who is going to tell it?


  • Here’s John Bell’s hymn “No wind at the window” in his setting. I wrote another arrangement for our Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Saturday 10 December 2016 at 6pm at the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket, Hamburg.
  • Look at the girl in Lorenzo Lotto’s take on the Annunciation. Is it the moment before or after responding to the angel?
Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557)

Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557)

daniel purcell: magnificat and nunc dimittis in e minor

Here is a recording of Daniel Purcell’s setting of the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis.

And if you have more time: Here‘s the whole evensong.

Choral Evensong – Thursday 11 September 2014
Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket, Hamburg, Germany

Father Matthew Jones
Anglican Consort dir. by Yotin Tiewtrakul
Jochim Trede, Organ

Organ Prelude: Élégie (Robert Jones)
Introit: Almighty and everlasting God (Orlando Gibbons)
Preces and Responses: (William Smith)
Psalm: Psalm 116 (William Henry Havergal)
Canticles: Magnifcat and Nunc dimittis in E minor (Daniel Purcell)
Anthem: Evening Hymn – Now that the sun (Henry Purcell)
Organ Postlude: Peasdown Pastorale (Christopher Tambling)

 

can music be humble?

It has been a while. Now it’s time for evensong again! Not only is the parish choir singing at the Nacht der Kirchen (Saturday 6 September at 7pm), but also the chamber ensemble, the Anglican Consort will share some treasures on Thursday 11 September at 7pm. I am so looking forward to singing the canticles (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) in the E minor setting by Daniel Purcell. A friend who was a choral scholar at Norwich Cathedral mentioned it to me. I have never sung it myself but the music sheets have arrived yesterday and playing through this humble music got me really excited!

The last four months have been good: I think it is clearer now for me as choir director where to put my energy and how to work with what we’ve got in our small church community. I also had to learn that maintaining a monthly evensong didn’t work. But that’s okay, isn’t it?

For next year we could perhaps schedule four evensong services with the Anglican Consort. I don’t need to offer evensong each month. We don’t need to do a lot but rather put our whole heart into the small things we do. (Somehow this relates to what I have seen and heard from the Daniel Purcell setting: It’s not a “showy” big composition but offers you a simple way to make the humble canticles – “Mary’s song” and “Simon’s song” – sound.)

interaction in music

I have been reflecting quite a lot recently about how to continue the choir in our church. To be honest there won’t be big changes. I suppose it’s mostly about how I myself understand what’s happening and about changing my criteria in judging what’s (“aesthetically”) good and what’s not.

Also I have found out that what I value most is “interaction in music”. That’s something which I want to nurture in our choir. This is different for example than to say: I want a very smooth sound, with all the voices merging perfectly. This ideal of a merging choral sound doesn’t work for the parish choir very much because the group changes quite a lot from week to week and also the singers come from diverse cultural backgrounds with different tastes in what’s beautiful in a human (singing) voice. So it would be clever to value “interaction in music”: This leaves open the result and focuses on the process of “making music together”.

Of course I don’t know exactly how to practice this with the choristers. But at least I feel that I have found an important direction where we can go. (Also I find that following this value is different than to have big dreams and goals which would require commitment, time, energy and skills which we can’t give at the moment.)

So yes, there will be a new parish choir, a new “Anglican Choir” hopefully. Will keep you posted.

learning songs by heart

By the invitation of Archdeacon Jonathan Lloyd those involved in the music ministry met at St Thomas Becket in Hamburg. Participants came from the most Northern part of the Diocese in Europe – we couldn’t quite decide if that’s Norway or Finland –  while the most Southern participant came from Florence, Italy.

The weekend was led by Iain and Margeret McLarty and I think that their acquaintance with the Church of Scotland helped us getting a flavour for the importance of congregational singing. It was just amazing how Margaret taught us songs just by singing a line and asking us to sing it back to her, and how the complete song then slowly “comes into being”. In fact you could say that this “technique” lets you watch or rather listen to the “creation” of a song.

I am very encouraged to continue doing that also with our church community in Hamburg. But not only there: Some days later I was invited to an event honouring Bishop Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter at her birthday where I was asked to sing with the guests. Of course what else could you sing at such an occasion than “Even before I was born” by Stephen Fischbacher? It’s a song involving also sign language which I believe gives the song much more depth.

(Be warned though when you sing “Even before I was born” with a group of theologians! I was asked later, well not really “asked”, theologians don’t ask, they tell you! So, I was told how ill-founded the sign for “God” is: it’s the index finger pointing to the sky. I should have repeated the song again, asking the theologians to point whereever they think God “is” according to their personal theological preference.)

NB. I’ll attend the Poland Sacred Harp Convention this weekend and am looking forward to Michael’s workshop in two weeks! Flyer / Facebook event

the nightingale as teacher of “frau musica”

NB. I updated the calendar.

In the past I translated some hymns and songs from English into German. A night two weeks ago though – around 2am – I managed to write down some verses, trying to find an English version of “Die beste Zeit im Jahr ist mein” (1538) by Martin Luther. It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to convey Luther’s idea of how he considers music, or “Frau Musica” i.e. “Lady Music” as he calls her, being a “creature”. (And by the way form him “Frau Musica” comes second right after theology.) But that in fact it is nature really, or in his metaphor: the nightingale who is the real master and teacher of the art: “der Musica ein Meisterin”.

Thanks to Iain Preston who gave me a polite feedback on my first try. The result is now:

1. O how I love the time of spring,
when all the birds rise up to sing!
Throughout the land, throughout the sky,
their song resounds and lifts us high.

2. So let us honour music’s art
which cheers us up and warms our heart.
But foremost praise the nightingale,
the master singer of the vale.

3. His song is purer than all art.
O may we also sing our part
in nature’s song of joyful noise
for him who gave us breath and voice!

Yotin Tiewtrakul 2013
adapted from “Die beste Zeit im Jahr ist mein” (1538) by Martin Luther

The original can be found here (along with an elaborate comment on Luther’s “theology of music”).

Oh, I forgot to mention it is in Short Metre (S.M.), so you might want to sing it with the tunes “DUKE STREET” or “O WALY WALY”. The tune to which it is sung in Germany is from a 16th century Bohemian Brethren hymnal.

schlagerparade vs. evensong

I was a bit worried when I got on the S-Bahn at Hauptbahnhof to get to our church last Saturday: The train was packed, the people were dressed in 70s outfits including colourful wigs and alcolhol was a big factor for all them having a good time. Yes, I was concerned that our evensong would be ruined by loud music blaring from outside from the trucks of the Schlagermove-parade.

But then this clash of parade and evensong created an interesting tension: In which ways are those two events related and where do they differ? One common thing is: Both events invite you to step out of your everyday role. The routine is stopped and you are allowed to explore an “imagninary world” for a while. And music seems to be one important “portal” in both genres.

In the end I think those who attended evensong (and had to fight their way through the crowds in order to get to the church) certainly had a rich experience of being in a sacred space and knowing (and sometimes hearing) at the same time that there is also another world just outside. And maybe those two worlds are more connected than you would have thought.

Here are soundclips and pictures from last Saturday’s evensong. (Many thanks to Maxim Sergienko!) Also, there’s an interview featured at evangelisch.de

evensong – it’s a thing we do

What we kept from our anniversary year is that we celebrate evensong once a month. It’s always on the first Saturday at 5pm. We have either the parish choir or a visiting choir providing the music for this unique Anglican tradition. Last time though the visiting choir had to cancel and neither me nor our organist could step in. So there was an evensong without choir let alone an organ!

Well, I wasn’t there, but Matthew, our chaplain, told me, that it was one of his most special celebrations of evensong he experienced. They recited the liturgy and just sang a capella. What enthusiastic parishioners we got! I guess it must have been a very intimate and intense time of prayer with all of them knowing they couldn’t rely on other people (like the choristers or the organist) but just being the “People of God” themselves offering their prayers, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. That’s the spirit!

I’m excited to announce a very special evensong on Saturday, 29th June at 5pm. A group of friends will provide music for a “Choral Evensong with Tudor Music”. This is what we’re singing:

  • Introit: Almighty and Everlasting God (Orlando Gibbons)
  • Psalm: Plainchant
  • Canticles: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from the Second Service (Orlando Gibbons)
  • Anthem: This is the record of John (Orlando Gibbons)

It’s great that we at St Thomas Becket in Hamburg “just do it”, whether it’s a very intimate said evening prayer or a very festive choral evensong with such exquisite music.