New Creation, Arise is a new hymn by Zebulon M. Highben (music) and Sally Messner (text) written for the people of Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, in honor of their cantors, Rev. Robert Buckley Farlee and Rev. Martin A. Seltz, on the 40th anniversary of their ordination.
The new tune is named LAKE STREET NEW. The occasion for the composition—celebrating the ministry of Farlee, Seltz, and Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis’s Longfellow Neighborhood—naturally led to a text focused on the murder of George Floyd, the variety of ways this injustice was decried, the suffering of oppressed people everywhere, and the summons Christians now must hear to continue fighting for a more just world.
We asked Sally and Zeb to tell us about their vocations as church musicians and about their collaborations in creating this new hymn.
When did you first get interested in church music and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
Sally. I grew up in Georgia and began singing in the adult choir at my home church in ninth grade, after I was confirmed. At Valparaiso University, I was drawn to the intersection of music and theology. As a voice performance major, I connected most with the sacred arias, especially those from Bach’s passions and cantatas. During my senior year at Valpo, I looked into seminary graduate programs in music and theology and enrolled in Luther Seminary’s Master of Sacred Music program. My first job in church music was as a quarter-time music intern at a large downtown Methodist in Minneapolis. As I became familiar with the church music scene in the Twin Cities, I realized that full-time careers in church music are possible. Since my time at Luther Seminary, I have been living out the call to serve as a musician in the church in some capacity—from section leader to choir member to director of music. For almost twenty years, that’s meant a part-time position supplemented by other professional work. I’m now fortunate to have a full-time position in a congregation in Michigan where I can focus my energy and creativity on all aspects of developing an engaging church music program.
Zeb. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a music educator but also felt called to attend seminary. I grew up in a part of Ohio where I didn’t know you could be a full-time church musician. All the churches in my town—from big parishes to small ones—had part-time musicians who tended to also work full-time as high school choir directors or elementary music teachers. As a college senior, I started investigating seminary MDiv programs and was excited to discover the Master of Sacred Music program at Luther Seminary, a joint degree with Saint Olaf College. I attended Luther Seminary both as an MSM and MDiv student and eventually dropped the latter. My interests in worship, liturgy, and music—especially choral music and hymns—found a perfect fusion in the MSM program.
Sally, how do you approach hymnwriting? The text to New Creation, Arise seems to be a mix of biblical images and socio-theological ideas. What’s going on in this text?
Sally. Most of my hymnwriting has been biblical paraphrases, primarily psalms. When I choose a text to paraphrase, I read it several times, live with it for a while, and see what images and other words come to mind. In all of these past instances, I was working with a tune already in mind, so having a meter helped create a linguistic framework as the language of the paraphrase bubbled up. With New Creation, Arise, I was working without a tune. I started with the new creation text in 2 Corinthians while also having in my head and on my heart the recent protests and devastation in Minneapolis’s response to the murder of George Floyd. The pain of the community we’d called home for nine years weighed heavily on me. Then I started thinking about the Beatitudes and looked at both Gospel texts, being drawn more to Matthew’s version as I thought of all the black and brown mothers, fathers, and children—including the children imprisoned at our border. I reflected on their generations of struggles, their belovedness, their blessedness. Micah and Revelation also make an appearance in the test. The hymn text began to form into a sort of trinitarian shape, but I didn’t want to leave the community singing in the second person, as if we can remain onlookers. We the church—the Christian community—are also blessed in spite of our shortcomings and our sins. And we are and will always be called to help and serve our neighbors who are hurting.
Zeb, how do you approach the composition process?
Zeb. Because I write vocal music almost exclusively, I always start with the text. I usually memorize it and try to tease out any “natural” musical elements in the text itself—the rhythm inherent in the syllables, the melodic contour suggested by important words, and so on. This almost always leads to crafting a melody first. Harmony, structure, form, and other elements usually come later. This approach to composition is one I was taught by David Cherwien, who learned it largely from Alice Parker.
What about Sally’s text made you go for this style of tune? What was the biggest challenge in setting the text?
Zeb. The number of syllables in Sally’s text almost immediately suggested a compound meter. The repeated elements like “Blessed are you” and “New creation, arise” reminded me of folk-based hymns and songs with similar structures. The biggest challenge was certainly trying to figure out appropriate text stress and melodic patterns that fit with the irregular number of syllables per line—22.214.171.124.10. There aren’t many (perhaps not any) other tunes with such a pattern. But Sally and I worked together to adjust elements of both text and tune, which is how we ended up repeating the first phrase and lengthening the overall structure. Collaborating with a poet (especially a friend!) is always a richer experience and makes for a better hymn.
Sally, what was it like working with Zeb on this project? Had you worked with him before?
Sally. Zeb and I were seminary classmates and have worked together on many things, mostly in performance capacities. This is our first hymn collaboration. Zeb is a gifted composer and crafted the perfect tune for this text—it embraces the deep lament the text expresses and also lifts up hope, propelling us toward justice. Musically, the folk style of the setting evokes the communal nature of struggling against systems of oppression and the Christian church’s history of supporting and leading movements against forces of oppression. Zeb and I had an engaging back and forth over a few places in the text and in the setting of the music. The way we refined it over the course of a month or so from our first drafts only made the final hymn better—and this could come only from open dialogue.
How do you know Bob Farlee and Martin Seltz, and what does it mean to you to create new music for the church in their honor?
Sally. I first met Bob and Martin when I worked at Augsburg Fortress 15 years ago. Then my family became members at Christ Church Lutheran, where they both are cantors. Josh and I (and Anni and Sim at times) sang in the church choir and were involved in a music series at the church. Our family were members at Christ Church for only four years, and in that short time, that community truly became home for us. Bob and Martin are thoughtful musicians and theologians who love their people. They want to help us sing and sing well. Through their own work on hymnals and in hymn writing, they’ve given so much to generations of church musicians and congregations. I am glad to offer something new to honor their years of service and gifts to all of us.
Zeb. I’m not sure how long I’ve known Bob and Martin, or even exactly how we met! But it was certainly some combination of our various involvements with Augsburg Fortress, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, Valpo’s Institute of Liturgical Studies, and living and working for a few years in the Twin Cities. They have been friends and mentors, and I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to write something in their collective honor. Both of them have given so much to the church, and especially to its song.
Thanks to Philip Potyondy—friend, forester, and member of the Brass Messengers—for his images of damaged buildings on or just off of Lake Street in Minneapolis.
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