A Closer Walk: Some Thoughts on Black Hymn Traditions

Black spirituals and other hymns associated with the Black Christian tradition in the US are among the most life-giving, gospel-filled contributions to the corpus of Christian hymnody.

Understanding where these songs come from and how they came to be such a vital component of Black and non-Black liturgical traditions is complicated.

To explore a few popular tunes from the complex story of Black hymnody, we spoke with Paul Westermeyer—professor emeritus of Church Music at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota—who is author of many books on church music and hymnody, among them Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a trove of historical information and theological insight on the 654 hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

The Elm Ensemble has recorded a few of these remarkable hymns and shares them here, intermixed with the interview.

Few hymns in mainline hymnals are attributed to Black hymnwriters. Who and where are the Black hymnwriters?

The anonymity of Black spirituals is the first thing we should discuss. These songs tend to be known best in their choral or concert versions, as they are arranged and performed broadly in the US and elsewhere. But they are profoundly congregational in their native states and are sung by all manner of Christian congregations. So the complexity of the question leads us inevitably beyond anonymity and Black hymnwriters.

As Black music experts have explained to me, some Black hymn-singers think that some hymns and tunes by white writers are by Black ones, just as some Lutherans think all the hymns in a Lutheran hymnal are by Lutherans. The nature of congregational song is not restricted to one ethnicity or construction of race but is a reality where everything recedes into the communal.

The short answer to your question, for Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is David Hurd. Hurd—a celebrated composer and concert organist and improviser—has three hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and a dozen in Hymnal 1982. The fact that we can count on one hand the number of living Black composers in most mainline hymnals is another matter.

There Is a Balm in Gilead, ELW 614

What is Jeremiah asking in chapter 8 and why is this hymn such a compelling response?

I think Jeremiah is uttering a lament. It’s a rhetorical question in response to some bleak circumstance. I think the hymn is a compelling response because Black folks faced such a bleak landscape but simultaneously knew there was hope in the Holy Spirit and in the love of Jesus who, unlike those who controlled them, was and is their friend.

The verses seem especially preoccupied with the inability to preach the Word effectively. What’s going on here?

I think this is simply a matter of vocation. Not everyone is called to preach like Peter or to pray like Paul. Those who are not—most of the singers—are called to speak the truth in simple declarations that do not require the knowledge some vocations require.

I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, ELW 325

The text here is in the first person singular. How is this communal? Who’s singing this text, and for whom?

I have to be autobiographical to respond to this question. My best friend in high school was Black. He was a fine pianist who went to Juilliard. We sat together in our high school choir where we began a perpetual repartee about music and theology, and we visited each other’s churches and homes.

When I visited his church, I was struck by the language of the hymns and the preaching. In my white church, the first-person singular pronoun in a hymn meant me, one person—and it was sentimental. In my friend’s Black church, the first-person singular pronoun seemed vigorously communal and was not sentimental at all. I began to realize what was confirmed later in visits I made to other Black churches and in my own reading, including this important passage in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, edited by James Abbington: “the first-person singular personal pronoun ‘I’ was traditionally considered ‘communal’ in Black culture” (62). Everybody is singing this text for everybody before God, in community. The whole body—every member—of a Black church leaves worship to face police brutality and other horrors of racism. In white churches, individuals leave with no concern that they will be attacked because they are white. Singing embodies this reality.

SOJOURNER has a lot going for it as a tune. It ranges from low to high and back again but is also straightforward in many ways. What about this tune, for you, makes it so musically engaging?

This is an interesting example of successful melodic engineering. The tune is triadic minor with the contrasting triadic major second line. It’s almost pentatonic, without the fourth or sixth degrees of the scale and with one alteration of the seventh degree to the leading tone. That tonal arrangement is joined to a rhythmic one that walks along smoothly until the pilgrim journey gets a syncopated bump that is replicated in the repetition of the first line’s cry, now syncopated in the last line. That analysis may help to explain why the tune is engaging, and I’d say the syncopated bump is critical. But you could probably devise a tune with these components that would not be engaging. The tune is not explained solely by analysis.

Come, We That Love the Lord (We’re Marching to Zion), ELW 625

How does an Isaac Watts text paired with a Robert Lowry tune become so closely associated with Black Christian musical traditions?

I learned from Melva Costen that hymns of this sort are regarded by many African Americans as theirs, even as coming from African Americans themselves. I can only assume that the sense of liberation and deliverance they perceive in hymns like this—a characteristic of Christian hymnody generally, in spite of what white Americans have done to it—resonated with them.

What’s this fascination with Zion? It’s mentioned a lot in hymnody, but Mount Zion seems to be just a big barren rock outside of Jerusalem.

The word Zion has a pretty complicated history, but its use in hymns seems to refer to the “city of God”—via its biblical reference to the temple of Jerusalem, the place where Yahweh dwells and the heavenly Jerusalem to come. That’s probably way too simple, but I think something like that is what is in the mind of most singers and writers of hymns.

Just a Closer Walk with Thee, ELW 697

All journeys come to an end, but this text gets in a detailed request for guidance into the kingdom. Do African American spirituals often have explicit references to Christ’s return?

I’ve always thought of this hymn as God’s guidance throughout life, which leads to God’s guidance in death. As to Christ’s return, you’d have to make a pretty complete study of African American spirituals to find out if it’s absent. References might be couched in imagery like “don’t that look like my Jesus” or the chariot rider who’s “getting ready for the judgment day.” In Deep River, I/we “want to cross over into campground”—likely a reference to camp revival meetings but maybe also to the freedom of eternal life in Christ. And the trumpet sound in Steal Away could certainly be the biblical trumpets of Revelation and Paul’s letters declaring the beginning of Christ’s reign.

My suspicion is that Jesus’ presence now in suffering is so strong that it poetically encompasses the second coming without mentioning it as often as it might be mentioned in other traditions. But that’s just a guess, and further work would need to be done.

That opening chromatic lick is just so cool, and so jazzy. Is there any chance this tune doesn’t have its roots in early jazz?

It’s hard to imagine it doesn’t have those roots, but I don’t know of any evidence other than the sonic suggestion.

The fact that we have to speculate about so much of the history and the stories behind these songs takes us back to the anonymity we started with. Details of human life always get lost in the past, but this is particularly so for individuals and communities who are oppressed, enslaved, and otherwise silenced. It is a grace and blessing to all of us that some of those voices—oppressed yet faithful—have survived in song and continue to preach God’s word to us today.

Called with Lazarus to a New Dying and a New Life

Above. Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life, 1973. From the Jesus Mafa project, a response to New Testament readings by a Christian community in Cameroon.

Thanks to Dr. Frederick Niedner, Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, for sharing with us this Lenten sermon about Lazarus and Jesus. We share it now, during the Three Days leading from Good Friday to Easter, because it proclaims the radical forgiveness and new life Jesus promises us and the community of love that promise creates for us anew every day.

You can listen and sing with us using the YouTube links you find throughout the blog post, which loosely follow the trajectory of Holy Week and the Triduum—from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday.


John 11:1-53

Of all the stories John could have included in his Gospel, he was sure to include this one because John’s first readers could see themselves so clearly in this story.

They found themselves in the cemetery burying those they loved. But they had clung to words of Jesus like, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). And the promise we heard in the Gospel lesson itself: “Whoever believes in me will never die.”

They struggled to understand how death could invade the community of eternal life, the family of the risen Christ. Death, after all, had been conquered, right? But we’re still dying! How can this be?

Those early believers lived with the promise that Jesus would return very soon to take them to himself. There they would live forever. But one by one they were dying off. And the way John tells the story of Lazarus and his family, the members of the community of eternal life can see themselves in the story, and it helps them make sense of what they’re experiencing.

I think I can see many of us in the story, too, or at least I can see myself, at several places in this Gospel lesson. I hear myself in Martha’s words as she went out to meet Jesus, when he finally came, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). And I hear myself in the words of the bystanders who asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37).

How many of our prayers, if we really think about them, aren’t really pleas that God would keep us from dying. “Keep us safe,” we pray. “Heal us of our diseases. Give us food. Make peace in our world.” Every one of them really means, “Keep us, or at least our children, from dying.” And when one of us dies, especially a younger one struck down suddenly or tragically, we hear ourselves asking, “Lord, where were you? Where are you? Lord, if you had been here, our brother, our sister, would not have died.”

And think how much of what we do has the same theme. I think of my health plan and the other money I spend on medical care. I think of my constant dieting, my exercise plan. I think of how I teach and watch over the safety of my children. I think of the causes I support that have to do with drunk drivers and cystic fibrosis and cancer.

I’m working on one thing—to keep from dying. That’s what we’re up to in this world, isn’t it? Survival. We spend our lives trying to keep from dying.

Which makes for a couple sad things. For one, we are so busy keeping from dying that many of us never get around to living. And there’s a difference between the two.

Living, real living, is full of risks and vulnerability and giving things away just for the joy of it. Keeping from dying has room for very little of those things. Those are often rather sure ways to die, you know.

Second, if all we need God for is to keep us from dying, we’ve got a pretty small relationship with God. God is merely the administrator of our health care plan, not our partner in the dream of what the world could be, not our friend in the dance of life’s uncertainties and surprises. And that’s what God wants to be for us.

And so, by coming late, and raising Lazarus from the dead instead of keeping him from dying, Jesus did something much more to further God’s glory than merely playing along with the survival game.

Now we come to the great and surprising irony of what Jesus was up to in John’s Gospel. Jesus promises Mary and Martha that now they will see the glory of God. So what does Jesus do? He calls into the tomb and Lazarus comes out. Lazarus comes out. He lives! The dead are raised!

Is that the glory of God? I don’t see any celebrating in the story, not even a party like folks have after a funeral, much less a resurrection.

Instead, here is where the plot begins against Jesus’ own life. And the same ones who plot against Jesus decide they must do away with Lazarus, too, because people are beginning to take Jesus seriously on account of Lazarus.

In other words, Jesus calls Lazarus from death and the tomb, but he doesn’t say, “Come with me to a care-free, death-proof life.” No, as John’s Gospel plays out, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb to follow him to Jerusalem and ultimately to Golgatha. That’s where Jesus was headed—to his death. And that’s the moment of his great glory as John’s Gospel tells the story. It’s as though Jesus shouted into that tomb, “Heads up in there! I’m coming in!” or at least something like, “Come out of that tomb, Lazarus. We’ve got things to do. We’ll never settle for an ordinary death. No, let’s go together and die a death that really counts for something! Let’s go where we can give our lives away!”

That is central to the Christian gospel, that we are free to bear life’s crosses, take the kinds of risks that go with the Christ-life within us, open ourselves to the same sorts of vulnerability Christ took on, because God is playing a bigger game than a survival game.

We are not merely today’s angry, heartbroken Mary or Martha in this story. We’re also Lazarus, called from our ordinary, mundane kinds of dying to something new and different—to a death that reveals the glory of God. John’s ancient readers, as well as we his modern readers, have gone through Lazarus’ experience in baptism. In our baptisms we, too, have been wrapped in grave clothes and then called to new life. We’ve been summoned from ordinary graves and called to the road of cross-bearing that leads to Jerusalem and Golgatha as those places exist right here in our community.

We are also like Lazarus, who had a hard time walking what with all those 30 or more feet of linen cloths tightly wrapped around him. It was hard to follow Jesus very well in that condition, hard to go die a glorious death of giving his life away. We, too, still have those grave clothes on, all of our old death-related habits and beliefs, so our movements are restricted. We walk haltingly, not freely, still trapped and hampered by the death-worries that cling to us.

But the good news is, Jesus still has agents to whom he can say, “Unbind him, and let her go!” It’s this community. Those verbs, by the way are the verbs of forgiveness in John 20:23 and Matt. 18—that gives a clue as to how we do this work.

And we don’t ever have to do any of this alone. We have each other to share in the work of stripping off our grave clothes and putting behind us the sins and the symbols of the graves that haunt us throughout our lives.

This is part of the great death-march practice in Lent. We strip off the grave clothes, partly through the discipline of looking death in the eye. “Dust you are,” we hear again at the beginning of our journey, as we get our passport stamped with the sign of the cross of our foreheads.

If you feel yourself walking a bit stiffly in the days ahead, because your fears and your weaknesses tell you that the grave and its terrors still grip you like strips of heavy linen around your heart, say to one of us, “Unbind me, let me loose.” And we will listen, and we will give ourselves to you, and you can leave those grave clothes behind, and live.

As I said, there was no party after Lazarus’ resurrection, oddly enough. That celebration awaits. But we shall have a taste of it even today, as shortly we will come to the table to share in the body and blood of our Lord and in so doing take his life into us. And if we have his life in us, no grave could ever hold us, no grave clothes bind us. And life for us will be much more than just a matter of seeing how long we can keep from dying.

Frederick Niedner
Immanuel, Michigan City, Indiana
9 March 2008

Fred Niedner taught Biblical Studies and Hebrew language in Valparaiso University’s Department of Theology from 1973 to 2014. At various times during his active teaching years he also served terms as coordinator of the Chapel’s Morning Prayer worship, Director of Freshman Seminars, Teaching Resources Center Director, Department Chair, and Associate Director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies. His doctoral work focused on the Hebrew Bible, and he was a founding member of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Tradition History of the Pentateuch Seminar. Much of his teaching and research also centered on the New Testament, and particularly on the Gospels.

Image Credit. Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville. Original source: Librairie de l’Emmanuel.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord: A Sermon about Downward Ascents

Thanks to Pastor Erik Haaland of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis for sharing with us this wonderful Transfiguration sermon, which he preached on February 23, 2020.

You can also listen and sing with us on Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair. And at the end of this post is the full version of the beautiful painting you see here—Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park by Stephen Glowacki.

Beloved people of God,

For me it’s hard to hear these great stories about mountains and not think of some the mountains I’ve experienced in my own life. I wonder if it’s the same for you, too?

Once, in college, I joined a group of friends on a backpacking trip in the Beartooth mountains of Montana, not so far from where I grew up in the town of Billings. We spent one day hiking up a forested valley, then another crossing what they call scree—loose rock on the face of a mountainside. Then just above the tree line we passed Froze to Death Lake. (That’s it’s real name!) And from there we headed on up toward a gap in a ridge. Near the top there was a small herd of big-horned sheep, who were astonishingly beautiful creatures, and to my great relief, left us entirely alone.

Then, finally, we made it to the top of that ridge. . . . And I wonder if many of you haven’t had something like this same experience: approaching the top of a ridge or a mountain range, you get there, and all of a sudden there are whole new worlds in front of you. You go from the single valley you’ve been in and looking at for, in our case, the last day and a half . . . and then suddenly you’re on top of the world. And there are valleys and lakes and mountains (whole worlds!) that you’ve never seen before. It feels revelatory. Holy.

It’s not hard to see why, throughout human history, mountains have been experienced as holy places—places of encounter and revelation, of transfiguration.

Consider the significance of mountains in even just this one religious tradition: our own.

At the heart of what the Jewish people call the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, stands the story of Moses being called up to the heights of Mount Sinai to receive the gift of the law. This is the holy Word of the Lord, that will guide the people in justice and in truth.

And the details of the story are simply fantastic. The mountain is covered with a mysterious cloud, which is the very presence of the glory of God. It’s a glory that, at the very same time, is like a devouring fire. Fire in a cloud! And Moses enters this glory—this cloud and fire—for forty days and forty nights. Which is biblical code for “a very long time.”

And when Moses finally comes down, bearing the gift of this law, his face is shining so brightly he’s forced to put on a veil so as not to terrify the people.

It should come as no surprise that the story of Jesus includes some mountains, too.

This is what happens on the holy mountain. Moses enters into the glory of God, and the whole of Israel gets a glimpse of God’s majesty.

But that’s not the only mountain story in scripture. The great prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, also makes a pilgrimage to the mountain—the holy mountain, Sinai, where he hides in a cave as the glory of the Lord passes by. We’re told there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces. And after that an earthquake, and after that a fire, and after that a sound of sheer silence. And in that silence, Elijah hears the still, small voice of God, encouraging him on.

Another great mountain in scripture is Zion—Jerusalem, the city on a hill. And in the tradition, Mount Zion becomes a symbol for all of Israel’s hopes and dreams: of restoration, healing, and life. The tradition even dreams of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem, finding there their heart’s desire.

The prophet Isaiah also speaks of a mountain. In the twenty-fifth chapter, Isaiah has this vision of a mountain on which the Lord of hosts makes for all peoples a feast, a feast of rich food and well-aged wine. And on that mountain death is destroyed, and tears are wiped away. Elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah the Lord says, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

[Listen to Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair]

In scripture, the mountain is this holy place where we meet God face to face—where we encounter the awesome and transformative glory of God. The mountain—the holy mountain—is a symbol, too, of our highest hopes. A symbol of God’s redemption and healing of this whole broken, broken, beloved world.

And so then, it should come as no surprise that the story of Jesus includes some mountains, too.

For the past three Sundays we’ve been hearing portions of Jesus’ Sermon . . . on the Mount. It’s surely no coincidence that Jesus’ most profound teaching takes place on a mountain. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the new law-giver, summing up the law and the prophets in his commands to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s like this new clarity of revelation descending from the heavens and shaking the foundations…transforming the way we see the world.

We get another glimpse of that mountain in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is suddenly transfigured. All of sudden his face is shining like the sun, and his body is wrapped in a garment of light. Moses and Elijah are there, talking with him. It’s as if these mountain-goers of old are right there with Jesus—not in opposition, but standing right alongside.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows them all. And I absolutely love that . . . a bright cloud! Maybe it’s like the cloud of old that’s paradoxically filled with fire!

And out of that bright, flaming cloud a voice declares Jesus beloved.

Some consider this story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop to be a kind of image of resurrection—one that occurs in the middle of the story rather than at the end. The transfiguration of Jesus is this revelatory moment where it becomes clear who Jesus really is . . . that this one is the beloved Son of God. That this is the one who heals and saves. This is the one whom we are to follow. That this is the one to whom we must listen. The transfiguration is an image of the resurrected Christ in all Christ’s beauty and glory.

In fact, Jesus says as much when he tells Peter and James and John that this experience on the mountain can only be comprehended—and thus shared—in the light of the resurrection, after he has risen from the dead.

It is Christ’s downward ascent that lifts us up on high.

Which means also, that this experience on the mountaintop can only be comprehended in light of something else that takes place in Matthew’s gospel: namely, what happens “at the place where Jesus had no garments, and, in darkness on a different sort of mountain, talked [not with Moses and Elijah, but] with a couple of bandits.”1 When, on Golgotha, he hung on a cross.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once called Christianity a “downward ascent.” A downward ascent. To follow Jesus into his resurrected, transfigured glory is at the very same time to follow him in his humility, in his solidarity with and love for this whole suffering creation. In Christ, God’s glory and God’s self-giving are one and the same. A downward ascent. That’s the way of Jesus, and that’s the way he calls us to follow.

And this means that our true mountaintop experiences are not likely going to be in the places we expect. In fact, our true mountaintop experiences are not likely to be on mountaintops. It’s not likely to be in the midst of those rare experiences we crave and spend so much money to have. Or in those great accomplishments that we think will somehow make us our full selves. Or in those great barns of wealth we all seem to be scrambling to build.

No, that is not where God’s glory is to be found. There is no hope of transfiguration or resurrection there.

But the path of Jesus…now that’s another story. His is a path that invites us to sink into our creatureliness…into our full humanity…into the bonds that link us with each other and the earth and our siblings everywhere. The path of Christ is one of humility, and of resistance to the oppressive powers of his day…and of ours. The way of Christ is a descent…into love for each other…into love even for those whom we call our enemies.

But here’s the thing: this downward journey is in fact the way on high. It’s where resurrection happens—along the way as well as at the end. This way of Jesus is itself the mountaintop—the place where whole worlds of beauty unfold before us.

It is Christ’s downward ascent that lifts us up on high. It is the downward streaming love of God that heals and transfigures us—our broken, weary spirits—and set us on this path of love in Jesus’ name.

It is on this downward ascent that we find ourselves face to face with Christ, the great morning star, the crucified One, who shines with God’s own truth and light.

Alleluia, and Amen.

  1. From Fred Niedner in Sundays and Seasons Preaching.
"Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park" by Stephen Glowacki ( Oil on canvas.
Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park by Stephen Glowacki. Oil on canvas.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

. . . and a Happy New Year!

“Glad tidings we bring to you and your kin.”

We hope our joyous singing and playing of this traditional carol lifts your spirits as we move toward a happier and healthier new year.

Gathered around the Christmas tree in the painting is the Elm Ensemble—singers and players of accordion, virginal, tin whistle, xylophone, and guitar. Listen for violin, viola, comb, and the voices and instrumentals of children as well. Thanks to Johnny Dismal for the wonderful art!

“Heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain.”

Christina Rossetti’s gripping text—”In the Bleak Midwinter”—with music Gustav Holst composed for this poem. The meditative viola da gamba solo and the artwork—Richard Kathmann‘s “February”—resonate with the austere realities of winter and the ironic warmth such wintry sights and sounds bring to mind.

“Ther is no rose of swych vertu as is the rose that bare Jhesu.”

From the Trinity Carol Roll—a 15th century English manuscript that is our earliest known source of English polyphonic carols—There Is No Rose of Such Virtue is an anonymous Marian hymn with delicately beautiful sonorities and a poetic text meditating on the wonder of the incarnation.

Other Christmas and Advent hymns we recorded remotely this year.

  • Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (listen)
  • Let All Together Praise Our God (listen)
  • Comfort, Comfort Now My People (listen)
  • O Lord, How Shall I Meet You (listen)

Gems of Exquisite Beauty: Classical Music and American Hymns

In the antebellum US, as shape-note singing moved west and south, it was replaced in the northeast, in large part, by adaptations of bits of classical music recast into hymns for church.

Peter Mercer-Taylor, Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota, studies this unusual and fascinating repertoire and has just published a new book called Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America in which he tells the musical, cultural, and personal history of these hymns.

The Elm Ensemble has been recording some of these remarkable hymns, contributing to the growing online anthology of recordings, all of which include downloadable scores for use in worship. We asked Dr. Mercer-Taylor a few questions about the project.

When did you realize what was going on here—that hymn adaptations from major European composers for use in American hymnbooks was not a practice unique to a few connoisseurs but rather a widespread means of creating hymnody in the US throughout the nineteenth century?

I grew up in the United Methodist Church—both of my parents were UMC ministers—so hymn singing was a big part of my life from early on.

And in my later life as a musicologist, I took a particular interest in Mendelssohn. It was probably around 2005 that it first hit me how odd it was not only that I grew up singing a hymn —“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—to a Mendelssohn tune but that it was one of the best tunes in the hymnal. Those two dimensions of my musical being converged in this very immediate way I’d never given much thought to. I knew I’d seen a few more classical composers’ names attached to tunes and thought it would be fun to start poking into Mendelssohn’s, just to see how many history had cast forth. I came to find most had appeared in the nineteenth century, and that, yes, there had been a lot—I think I found 56 Mendelssohn tunes in print as hymn tunes by the end of the century. My website goes up only to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, so that figure is a little smaller.

The scope of the tradition just kept sneaking up on me incrementally. In basic books about hymnody, you can find casual references to hymn tunes based on classical music. Everyone knows they were there. But that’s mostly because Lowell Mason’s 1822 Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection was a major best-seller, and it had around 20 Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven tunes in it.

[Listen to Beethoven’s GANGES]

Where the tradition actually started, where it went, and how big it actually got hadn’t really been looked into. And for me, much of the excitement was finding new surprises around every corner. I was several years into this work—I’d collected a pile of tunes—before I started paying attention to this guy named George Kingsley. He shows up in scarcely any history books. But it turns out he was more into these adaptations than anyone. Fifty-one of the tunes on the website come from his publications, and most music historians have never heard his name. Also later in the research, I realized that the year after Ureli Corelli Hill conducted the New York Philharmonic Society in their first concert ever (in 1842), he published a big book of hymn tunes with a bunch of classical music in it. For him, these were just two different ways to get the word out. I find that fascinating.

How were these adaptations received by churchgoers? Were these intended more for church choirs or the whole congregation?

I haven’t found a lot of diary entries of churchgoers saying, “Wow, that Weber tune this morning blew my mind.” Those would be nice, but that wasn’t really the kind of project this was. It’s hard to say exactly what people made of these tunes, but a lot of people obviously liked them or they just wouldn’t have kept showing up in hymn collections.

As for who actually sang them—choir or congregation—I thrash around at that for a while in my first chapter. Whether congregations actually sang depended on denomination, region, size of the community, wealth, and all kinds of other stuff. If you were in a Methodist congregation in rural Illinois, you probably sang all the time, probably out of a folksy shape-note book. If you were a Congregationalist in Boston, you’d hear more of this higher-brow stuff I’m dealing with, but the choir would do most of the singing.

So yes, it was choirs that kept wanting new tunes all the time, and harder tunes, and these classical music adaptations would never have accumulated like they did without choirs clamoring for them. But some of them also became hits with congregations. (How we know this is a long story, and I share some of it in chapter 1). Weber’s WILMOT, for instance, was sung by a lot of congregations.

You note in chapter 2 that Mason did not himself invent this practice of adaptation in the US. Was this practice begun in England before it made its way to the US?

The practice was begun in England. This sort of thing had started trickling out in the first decade of the nineteenth century, but a big breakthrough was the first volume of William Gardiner’s Sacred Melodies from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, published in London in 1812 and comprised almost entirely of these kinds of adaptations. Then for about a decade, there is a bump in this sort of thing in England. And, yes, books like Gardiner’s were getting to the US. After that, the tradition seems to take off in the US to a much greater extent than in England, but it does hang on in England. The Mendelssohn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” adaptation, for instance, started out in an English tune book in 1857.

Where do the texts come from? You use the word psalmodic, but many of the texts are not psalms or psalm paraphrases at all, correct?

The hardest thing about working on this repertoire is there’s no good word for the thing I was writing about. Technically, these are “psalm and hymn tunes”—metrical tunes fit to sing a hymn or a psalm to. Back in the nineteenth century, most folks were comfortable just calling this psalmody. All kinds of Watts hymn texts that had nothing to do with actual Psalms were in circulation in a lot of denominations, some of which appear in this anthology (AETOLIA and SYRACUSE are good examples). Today, “hymnody” might be more appropriate.

If you published something in 1840 called a collection of “church music,” it meant it had a lot of psalm and hymn tunes in it. It might also have anthems, but if it wasn’t mostly psalm and hymn tunes—with meters indicated, so you could mix and match texts and tunes— you wouldn’t call it “church music.”

You allude to some healthy competition between all of these hymn compilers and include the shape-note tradition in that competition. By the time Mason and Clifton were adapting and compiling, was shape-note out of fashion in the northeast, or did they help drive it out?

It’s hard to say exactly how much shape-note music was circulating in northeastern households, but by the 1820s, it was pretty clear that shape notes were most strongly associated with what was known as the West and the South. Presumably, it was more like competition for the musical market share that made people on both sides fight so staunchly. But there were publications that went both ways, after all. The 1848 Sacred Harmony was a fairly high-brow book with a lot of classical music in it, edited by this fancy New York organist named Samuel Jackson. But it was put out mostly for use by Methodists, and there were Methodists everywhere, so they issued it in both round-note and shape-note editions.

Are there other examples—other than Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Haydn’s Austria—of hymns from this repertoire that churchgoers today would recognize, like “Joy to the World”?

“Joy to the World” fits right into this mix, but the tradition I deal with is adaptations only of what they called “modern” composers—Haydn and after. Adaptations of the work of “ancient” composers like Handel had started catching on a little earlier. But that’s a long story.* We do have some really famous specimens of this sort of thing that didn’t appear, at least in the US, until after the Civil War—that is, after the period covered in my book and on my website. Schumann’s Canonbury, based on one of his Nachtstücke, or the Mendelssohn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” or Sibelius’s Finlandia, for instance.

Culturally, what do you think motivates this classical-to-hymn adaptation? Is it nostalgia for European heritage?

This deserves a much longer answer, but for now I’ll point out a few things. In part, it’s like, “Hey, free tunes.” Because international copyright law didn’t come into existence until much later in the century. There were people seriously committed to classical music who really did want to get it into as many people’s ears as they could in whatever form that took. There was also a value attached to cultural markers of “refinement,” and a lot of folks were starting to recognize Beethoven and Mozart as names refined people were into. A lot of compilers adapt tunes so freely it doesn’t feel like they’re all that attached to the music itself—they just want to put enough notes from the composer in there to be able to stick the name on the tune. A good example of this would be MALLION, which is based on a very famous aria in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Mason and Webb’s adaptation quotes it for about 2 measures before heading off to do totally different things. The end of the hymn tune also refers elliptically to the end of the aria, but you might not hear that.

How much travel was involved in this research? And is there more of this corpus yet to be discovered?

I visited archives in six different states—not any churches but libraries and rare-book rooms. That’s a lot of running around, but it is a lot of fun.

Less fun is locating each tune somewhere in that composers’ output. Compilers almost never name the piece. They just write “Mozart” or whatever at the top of the tune. It then becomes our job to figure out which of Mozart’s 600-odd pieces it came from. So I spent a lot of time turning page after page of everyone’s complete works editions. Some tunes I immediately recognized, but some come from pretty far-flung corners. No, I did not immediately recognize melodic passages culled from the middle of Gluck’s De profundis, for instance, or Haydn’s Der Sturm, or Bellini’s Il Pirata. In that last case, my search was not helped by the fact that my sole nineteenth-century source attributed the tune to Donizetti.

Page from George Kingsley’s 1853 Templi Carmina with music adapted from Haydn’s The Creation (“Graceful consort” duet).

I’m sure there are piles more of these things out there. I looked at the major publications by the major compilers, but there are hundreds and hundreds of tune books I did not consult. As I say in the book’s introduction, my picture of this repertoire is a little like an early nineteenth-century map of the western half of North America. The rough contours are there, there are a lot of details waiting to be filled in.

* Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world in the first half of the nineteenth century who knew anything about higher orders of European composition (the term “classical music” was only just starting to get used) referred to “ancient” music as being the music of Handel’s generation and earlier and “Modern” music as Haydn’s generation and after. Just as we basically agree about what Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, and so on refer to, ancient and modern were the normal, everyday designations—not just among tunebook compilers. Weirdly, most people today use our blanket term early music to cover exactly what ancient music used to mean, but we don’t have a modern counterpart to modern music.

Top image. George Kingsley’s Templi Carmina (Northampton: Hopkins, Bridgman and Company, 1853) and The Sacred Choir (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1838).

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing: An Invitation to Celebrate

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing combines an old tune—INVITATION NEW from William Walker’s hymnbook Southern Harmony—with a joyous new text by Paul Damico-Carper about the new life we have in Christ. Between washing our masks and watching election news, the Elm Ensemble was able to record (virtually) Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing this fall and to grab some time with Paul to ask about this tremendous addition to Christian hymn texts.

Is there a specific occasion that got this project going or were you just working on these words and found your way to INVITATION NEW?

Paul. In the early days of the pandemic, some friends of mine put together something called the Triduum Project: a continuous YouTube livestream for the entirety of the Three Days. I got to host the last hour of the stream and wrote this hymn for the event. The initial impulses to write this text were to give the church an Easter text free of substitutionary atonement theory and rich with theology of the cross. I started writing it without a tune in mind, but it came to shape alongside a 7/4 tune in my mind with a grunge rock accompaniment using guitar power chords. Afterward, I shared the text in the ALCM Facebook group with a couple of recommended 8787D tunes. Pastor Blake Scalet (Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Summit, NJ) suggested INVITATION, and I loved the marriage of tune and text, especially on words like “cower” and “alleluia.”

What about this old shape-note tune made you think about the Easter message of new life in Christ?

Being a hexatonic tune with an implied modal character, there is enough ambiguity to hold both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And it calls for trochaic feet that fit the proclamatory nature of this text. All in all, it feels like a tune that can convey triumph without triumphalism and access self-giving love without sentimentalizing it.

This is a richly Lutheran text, and you’ve made interesting phrases and word choices. First, this is likely the first time the bully has made his way into a hymn text. Anything interesting to say about that?

Bullies have been empowered in recent US culture and public discourse in a way that grieves the heart of God. But Jesus saves us by taking away the power of the bully—that is, the threat of death or injury. And by juxtaposing “bully” and “cower,” I hoped to hint that the bully problem is rooted in toxic masculinity. (Although neither word appears to be etymologically derived from the gender of the cattle it sounds and looks like.)

“Ransacking hell” is such a fantastically vivid phrase, and theologically not too surprising. What about unlocking heaven to save saints? That’s a cool one. Tell us more.

The old idea of simil justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) is at play here. It is also a commentary on the theological dangers of self-centeredness and overfocus on the afterlife as reward/punishment. I think of it in terms of the story of the prodigal son/s: one son needs redeeming because he has squandered everything, the other son needs redeeming because he resents a mercy that doesn’t seem “fair.” Inasmuch as we are sinners, we need mercy in the form of a hell that cannot hold us in agony. Inasmuch as we are saints, we need mercy in the form of a heaven that cannot hold us away from the world that God loves.

Then those last words of verse 3—gives himself without restraint—sets up the poignancy of verse 4 so acutely. I love your play on the hidden/revealed God idea that’s so central to Luther’s theology and how shame is meant (by human intent?) to be in certain places where it actually has no business being or cannot actually exist.

You bring out such great things in the text with your comments and questions! The whole idea of this stanza is that God dying on a shameful cross to give us true life is not only the great salvific act but also the archetype for how God continues to be at work in the world. Empire and bullies are ashamed of weakness and vulnerability, and they shame entire swathes of people as a means of controlling and dividing them (into races, classes, cultures, identities, abilities, and so on). But outside of the thirst for power, when our inherent mutual vulnerability is acknowledged, there is life that defies zero-sum analyses.

And finally, God’s grace going “where it’s forbidden.” That’s just fantastic. But tell us more. Where are these places, and who’s forbidding God’s grace?

There is a beautiful pair of images whose sources I wish I could cite: (1) that God is pregnant with the cosmos, and so everything is God, and (2) whenever we draw a line around ourselves, God shows up on the other side of that line. It is in this kind of world that it makes sense for me to say that God’s glory is known where we want to see shame, and where we want to keep God’s grace for ourselves, it slips out of our grasp and ends up exactly where we forbid it to go.

Is there anything else about your text or the project overall that you want to share with us?

I think that in the United States, “free” (from the last stanza) is a loaded word. I hope the rest of the hymn makes clear that I mean the freedom for the neighbor rather than a freedom from the neighbor, which so often is worshipped by American “civil religion.” It’s an honor to have so many people come together to bring to life words I’ve prayed over. Thanks!

Life from Death_INVITATION NEW (PDF Download)

The Artwork

The artwork you see above is a graphite on archival paper drawing by Richard Kathmann titled Scrub Apple Blossoms (38″ x 50″, © 2003 Richard Kathmann, Kathmann began the drawing as an artist-in-residence at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, and continued work on it for half a decade. The work on the drawing prepared Kathmann for Apple Blossoms I, a hand-pulled lithograph (limited edition of 10, 22 1/2″ x 30″), which he completed in 2003 as a studio protest against the Iraq War. Kathmann shared this about his inspiration for the drawing: “A scrub apple is a volunteer, a tree that nature and chance have planted. This one had grown at the edge of the forest. The lower skirt of dead branches was a sign of the smaller tree losing the fight for light as a leaf canopy from young, taller trees blocked the tree from the sun.” Both images are shared below, just under the hymn text.

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing

Life from death is Jesus’ doing when he dies upon the cross
and is risen, hope renewing in the midst of ev’ry loss.

Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, the one who wins our hearts.
Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, in who our new life starts.

Jesus makes the bully cower for he broke the hold of death.
There is no oppressing power that can match his living faith. Refrain

Ransacks hell to save the sinners; unlocks heav’n to save the saints.
Gives us bread and wine for dinner; gives himself without restraint. Refrain

God’s own glory still is hidden where great shame is meant to be.
God’s grace goes where it’s forbidden, gives us life, and sets us free.

More Artwork

INVITATION NEW – Southern Harmony 303

New Creation, Arise: A New Hymn for the Church

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.

[Listen to New Creation, Arise and sing with us.]

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 church 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 text. 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.

[Listen to New Creation, Arise and sing with us.]

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— 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.

New Creation, Arise_LAKE STREET NEW_melody (PDF Download)
New Creation, Arise_LAKE STREET NEW_harmony (PDF Download)

Grace and Thanksgiving: Songs of Gratitude

Sunday, October 13, 2019
4:30pm | Saint James Episcopal Church, Dexter

[Listen to music from Grace and Thanksgiving]

Early American and European hymns and anthems help us explore God’s abundant love for us and our own grateful response for the fall harvest and all that the land gives us. Readings are from Anne Lamott, Wendell Berry, and the Gospel of Luke. We also read together a Litany of Thanksgiving.

Musical highlights include:

Evensong at Saint James events are a great opportunity to hear beautiful sacred music, experience a unique worship event, and socialize with people in our community.

During each evensong event, a freewill offering is collected, with all proceeds going to a local, regional, or national charity. Our designated recipient for the October event is Faith in Action, which provides essential support to alleviate the effects of hunger and poverty in the Dexter and Chelsea communities.

Receptions follow each evensong event. Service and reception are free and open to the public. Saint James is an open and welcoming community in downtown Dexter.

Notes on the Music

  • Prelude. We Gather Together by Adrianus Valerius b.1575 (KREMSER). An arrangement of this classic hymn for brass quintet and organ.
  • Introit. An old folk hymn Green Meadows that quotes the 17th-century melody CAPTAIN KIDD and most often appears with a psalm-like text by Elder Hibbard (Christian Harmony 299) describing the many glorious ways we can see God’s love written in creation.
  • Psalm 37. The psalm verses are chanted by the assembly with Savior, Visit Thy Plantation (SHIELDS, Christian Harmony 260b), a John Newton text, sung by the choir as an antiphon.
  • Anthem. With Johann Crüger’s beloved tune and Martin Rinckart’s august text, Nun danket alle Gott is a classic thanksgiving hymn, here in a moving arrangement by Johann Pachelbel.
  • Offering. John Newton’s poignant text of confession and gratitude with the timeless NEW BRITAIN tune, Amazing Grace is sung here in a setting by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw.
  • Anthem. A classic of many Thanksgiving concert programs, William Billings’s Anthem of Thanksgiving is an energetic proclamation of God’s good creative work based on Psalm 148.
  • Hymn. A classic Dutch hymn written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius sung here with Julia Cory’s understated, comforting meditation on God’s unending love and steadfast strength.

[Listen to music from Grace and Thanksgiving]

Musical Scores

Through all the world below,
God is seen all around;
Search hills and valleys thru,
There he’s found.
The growing of the corn,
The lily and the thorn,
The pleasant and forlorn,
All declare God is there,
In the meadows drest in green,
There he’s seen.

Savior, visit Thy plantation,
Grant us, Lord, a gracious rain!
All will come to desolation,
Unless Thou return again.

Keep no longer at a distance,
Shine upon us from on high,
Lest for want of Thy assistance,
Ev’ry plant should droop and die.

Hope for the Journey

Sunday, April 7, 2019

4:30pm | Saint James Episcopal Church, Dexter

[Listen to music from Hope for the Journey.]

Gather with us to hear and sing music that will remind us of God’s love for us, fill our hearts with song, and strengthen us for the road ahead.

Featuring the music of

Reception to follow. Service and reception are free and open to the public. Childcare is provided.

Evensong at Saint James programs are sung choral services led by the Elm Ensemble, a group of professional and amateur musicians from around the Midwest. The services are a great opportunity to invite friends in the community to Saint James to hear beautiful sacred music, to experience a unique worship event, and to socialize with people in our community at the reception.

Musical Notes

This evensong program focused on music and texts that remind us of God’s abiding and unconditional love for each and every one of us. Below is a downloadable PDF of the bulletin.

Abbie Betinis’s 3-part motet Blessed Be the Lord, My Rock was written on September 12, 2001, as a tribute to the victims and survivors of the tragedies the day before. The moving text from Psalm 144 escalates to two 4-part chords, continues softly in unison “rescue, me, deliver me,” and closes tenderly with, “I will sing a new song to thee, O God.”

Bobby McFerrin is known for is one-hit foray into pop music stardom and, perhaps to some, for his remarkable career as a classical singer, conductor, and educator. The full title of his composition sung today is The Twenty-Third Psalm (Dedicated to My Mother), and in it you hear not only the comforting and famous message of the twenty-third psalm but also McFerrin’s deep conviction that women and particularly mothers are central to the ongoing health of the world and to having some sense of (divine) peace on our journeys.

The hymn Hope of the World was written by Georgia Harkness and was selected from over five hundred others in a search for a hymn to be used at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, in October 1954. The theme of the assembly was “Jesus Christ, Hope of the World.” Harkness was an American Methodist theologian and philosopher, considered by many to be one of America’s first prominent female theologians. She was involved in the movement to legalize the ordination of women in American Methodism.

Eric Milner-White’s well-known text was simply and beautifully set by Minneapolis-based composer and Lutheran cantor Robert Buckley Farlee. Called to Ventures assures us of God’s love despite our ways being difficult, unclear, or simply unknown to us at this moment.

[Subscribe to the Elm Ensemble to hear great sacred music in context.]


Music of Immigrants and Refugees

Sunday, September 30, 2018
4:30pm | Saint James Episcopal Church, Dexter

Refugees, exiles, asylum seekers, immigrants. Like the Israelites and Jesus and his family, millions of people around the world move away from home and homeland seeking safety, employment, and a new life.

The modern American state was built by immigrants, ancestors to many of us. Do we now see ourselves as the new natives, protecting our borders from intruders? How do we interpret the biblical language of the “promised land” and the “city on a hill” in our contemporary contexts? Where is our final resting place? Where, or who, is our home?

Gather with us in a brief vespers service to hear and sing music exploring these biblical themes and music by immigrant composers as we experience together a beautiful evensong liturgy.

The gathered assembly will have many opportunities to join in the singing. Free childcare is provided. Reception to follow. Service and reception are free and open to the public.

And a few days earlier, come to our next Coffee & Conversation event—Immigration in Michigan: Our Neighbors’ Stories.

[Subscribe to the Elm Ensemble to hear great sacred music in context.]

Bulletin from September 2018 evensong at Saint James Episcopal Church, Dexter, Michigan

[Download PDF of the bulletin]

Notes on Music

What images come to mind when we hear the words immigrant and refugee? Where are these people from and why did they—willingly or unwillingly—leave the country of their birth to take up residence in a foreign land? What forces led them here?

This evening’s musical selections include pieces from three composers born in Europe who eventually lived and worked in the US.

Jean Berger

Born to a Jewish family in Hamm, Germany, and originally named Arthur Schlossberg, Berger studied musicology in Vienna and Heidelberg while at the same time becoming an accomplished pianist and conductor. He earned a doctorate in Heidelberg, accepted a post as assistant conductor at the major opera house in Mannheim, and studied composition with the chief cantor of the city’s mainstream nonorthodox synagogue. While leading an opera rehearsal in Mannheim, he was forcibly removed by Brown Shirts (SA). After the Nazi Party seized power in Germany in 1933, he moved to Paris, where he took the French name Jean Berger and toured widely as a pianist. From 1939 to 1941, he was assistant conductor at the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro and on the faculty of the Brazilian Conservatory. In 1941, he moved to the United States and served in the US Army beginning in 1942. In 1943, he became a US citizen and worked in the Office of War Information producing foreign-language broadcasts and USO shows until 1946. From 1946 to 1948, he worked as an arranger for CBS and NBC and toured as a concert accompanist. In 1948, Berger moved into the academic world, serving on the faculty of Middlebury College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Colorado Women’s College in Denver. Several of Berger’s pieces have become standards in the choral repertoire, “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee” perhaps the most well known and often performed.

Jan Bender

Jan Oskar Bender was born in Haarlem, Holland, on February 9, 1909, and moved to Lübeck, Germany, at age 13. As a teenager, he studied organ in Lübeck at the Marienkirche with Karl Lichtwark and Walter Kraft. In 1930, Bender went to Leipzig to study with Karl Straube, then returned to Lübeck to study with the young composer Hugo Distler. Bender served as organist at St. Gertrudikirche in Lübeck from 1934 to 1937, then at Lambertikirche in Aurich from 1937 to 1952, interrupted twice for active duty in the German army. He was wounded during his first tour of duty, losing his left eye to shrapnel. At the end of the war, Bender surrendered to Allied forces in France and, while in an American POW camp, completed his Auricher Singbüchlein. From 1953 to 1960, Bender served as cantor and organist at the Michaeliskirche in Lüneberg, where J. S. Bach had sung as a choir boy. Bender’s compositions became known to prominent Lutheran church musicians in the US, and in 1954 he was invited to become a “house composer” for Concordia Publishing House in Saint Louis. Bender eventually moved to the US for work, first at Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Nebraska, and then at Wittenberg University in Ohio. He composed prolificly and also played numerous organ recitals around the country. Bender moved back to Germany when he retired and died at his home in Hanerau, Germany, on December 29, 1994.

Gerhard Krapf

Gerhard Krapf was born in Meissenheim, Germany, in 1924. He studied piano and organ in his youth and at the age of 18 was drafted into the German army. He was wounded six times in the course of his military service and did not know the war had ended when he was captured by the Russian army on May 10, 1945. Krapf began composing in the years that followed as he worked in labor camps, writing his compositions on cement bags. After his release, he completed music degrees in Germany and emmigrated to the US in 1953 for further study. Krapf founded the organ department at the University of Iowa and served as professor of organ there from 1962 to 1977 and at the University of Alberta from 1977 to 1987. Krapf composed mostly organ music and in much of his choral music chose biblical texts as inspiration.

Jesus the Refugee

French artist Luc Olivier Merson’s arresting 1879 painting Rest on the Flight into Egypt, in highly romanticized but deeply empathetic fashion, shows the isolation and vulnerability of Mary, Joseph, and their baby son. Fleeing persecution at the hands of local authorities, and with help from the three magi, the Holy Family takes refuge in Egypt. Joseph dozes beside a dying campfire while their donkey grazes. On the left, Mary and the infant Jesus sleep in the arms of the sphinx, its eyes turned to heaven. Merson never traveled to North Africa, but his use of archeological detail creates the illusion of an eyewitness account.

Do we see scenes like this today, of desperate travelers, exhausted and alone? How do we respond?

Promotional Materials

[Download PDF of Evensong Poster]