By Robert Buckley Farlee
Composer and Lutheran cantor Robert Buckley Farlee has been a friend and collaborator of the Elm Ensemble’s for years.
We recently had the privilege of offering the premiere performance of Farlee’s new motet during the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University this April.
We invited Pastor Farlee to comment on some musical aspects of “All Shall Be Well” and what drew him to these powerful texts from Julian of Norwich.
“All Shall Be Well” was commissioned from me by the advisory council of the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. They wished to honor the Rev. Brian Johnson as he ended his term of service at the university, where he had been assistant vice president for mission and ministry. Brian continues to serve as co-director of the Institute.
Knowing of my long friendship with Brian and our various collaborations over the years, they asked if I would take on this challenge. I was delighted to accept.
The council requested a choral piece but left the text up to me. After giving it much thought, I chose to compile a text from the writings of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–after 1416).
Listen to “All Shall Be Well”
I have long been fascinated by her writings, especially so in these pandemic times.
We have all struggled to find our way through these long years, and I am one among many who have relied on the phrase that functions as the title and refrain of this composition: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It has consoled me many a night.
But I knew there was more to Julian’s writings than just that—among other things, she is known as the first woman to write a book in the English language.
So I purchased that book, The Revelations of Divine Love, and started reading it. That was a profound journey, and the biggest challenge was making a selection from that treasure chest.
As a mystic, Julian had what feels like a personal—at times intimate—relationship with the Holy Trinity, and I was deeply moved by what I read. I hope my musical setting helps lead more people to an appreciation of Julian’s work.
Julian’s Revelations may have been among the early writings in English, but it is far from primitive! She was obviously a well-educated woman.
An example of this comes at the beginning of the piece, where we hear Julian’s presentation of one of several trinities in her writings (in addition to the triune God). “Truth, wisdom, delight” all lead us to “God, who is love.”
After the first statement of the refrain, we begin to learn who this God is. Again, Julian points to three aspects in lovely alliteration: life, love, and light. She then briefly “unpacks” each of those properties. (It should be noted that, in context, she expands much further on these.) Who but Julian would think of life as homely, love as courteous, and light as kindness?
As the refrain—or perhaps better, antiphon—recurs, it is similar but not identical each time.
This could be said to reflect how the words affect us differently each time we encounter them.
The refrain divides the episodes I selected from Julian’s writings, and the text I use for the refrain is a passage from Julian’s writings that struck me more than most others.
Revealing that “all shall be well” doesn’t mean that life will be trouble-free but—simply and profoundly—that, whatever may afflict us, we shall not be overcome by it.
The piece ends—before a final statement of the antiphon—with the wonderful passage in which Julian presents God as using a variety of modal verbs. God may, can, will, and shall make all things well. I have tried to reflect this marvelous intensification through the music.
I hope the work can accomplish what Martin Luther said music can do so well—take the word of God and the theological insights found in scripture and bring them into our hearts. If that happens, then indeed all shall be well.
About the Author
Robert Buckley Farlee is cantor—with his colleague Martin Seltz—at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, where he has served as a pastor and cantor for over forty years. Farlee is a graduate of Christ Seminary-Seminex, Saint Louis, and is retired from Augsburg Fortress Publishers, where he was senior worship editor and involved with the publication of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In addition to publishing many works for choir, organ, assembly, and instruments, Farlee has received the Distinguished Alumni award from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the Christus Rex Award from the Institute of Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University.