The Same Text (A Lenten Reflection)
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”
A church musician considers the Bible in terms of lyrics of hymns and anthems, not simply as spoken verses to be memorized. One of the beauties of our trade, in fact, is the truth that we have committed to memory hundreds of verses over our careers (whether paid or volunteer), often in multiple languages, and more often than not, without even realizing it.
I was made more cognizant of this fact this past June, as I sat down for my first interview with the Committee on Ministry who would evaluate my experience to justify beginning the process of becoming a Commissioned Minister of Music in the United Church of Christ. The interview took place in Worcester at one of the committee’s regularly scheduled meetings. Just days before, I had attended the Massachusetts Conference’s annual meeting retreat, and was able to meet a few people ahead of time. With Debbie by my side at that first encounter, I felt good, I felt confident. There was just one thing that worried me, and I knew that it was a far-fetched concern (I’m well-known for those).
What if they challenge my fitness by baiting me into a chapter-verse argument?
This was a ridiculous thing to wonder. They had no interest in doing that, and I knew it. But, it must have been on my mind enough, that I inadvertently brought the conversation in that direction through my own stumbling. The response has stuck with me, and is the impetus for this post: “You’re a choir director, you have more scripture in your head than any of us do!” Dumbfounded, and without challenging the hyperbole of their comments, I did begin to see my life’s work in a different light.
Here’s a bold statement, that I’d gladly place a wager on: We choral performers, or (to sweeten the pot even further), all choral enthusiasts, cannot hear a single phrase of text that appears in Handel’s Messiah without immediately beginning an internal hum of its corresponding melodic phrase in the score. Many of us, in fact, will likewise be taken back into the rehearsal room, remembering the challenges of learning these phrases, the silly rehearsal directions from our conductors over the years, maybe even the verse that first spoke to us as we met Jesus, were born again, or first fell in love (with singing in general or, in my case, with that special someone singing beside us). What an incredible legacy. And that’s just in pondering the most celebrate piece of choral music in history. We choral enthusiasts have an entire life’s playlist that would keep us Christian, Bible-less on a deserted island.
“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”
When I see this phrase, as readily as any of us can speak the following words, I think of two musical pieces. The first, we can all relate to, Albert Hay Malotte’s traditional setting of the piece, which we sing at Edwards once a month in place of the reading of the Lord’s Prayer. The serenity with which the piece opens startles me each time I sing it. From the organ’s dulcet opening arpeggio, to the monotonic first few words, one would hardly imagine the degree to which that song will open up toward its grand climax. It’s an interpretation which I feel is akin to the phrase “Alleluia” (technically forbidden by the church to be spoken in Lent, but since this is a written post, well…). Although, clearly coming from the same root, I think of the similar word “Hallelujah” as bold, majestic, deserving of the exclamation point which often follows it in choral scores (Handel’s, for one). “Alleluia”, on the other hand, evokes the mysticism of Isaiah’s six-winged seraph, something that can’t quite be understood during our mortal years, but from which we simply can’t turn away.
Contrast Malotte’s interpretation with an anthem the choir will sing this Lent, titled (not surprisingly) “The Lord’s Prayer”, as arranged by Wayland Rogers. It’s a Trinidadian folk song which makes great use of the phrase “hallow-ed-a-be-thy-name”. If you’ve heard, or sung this piece before, that melody is now going to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. The fun inclusion of a shadow vowel between “hallowed” and “be”, and the peculiar accentuations that Rogers calls for, could not be any farther in construct from our Sunday morning prayer response using the same text.
The same text.
We all bring different interpretations to all the scripture verses that we’ve learned over the years. And those personal interpretations can change wildly over the years, as we progress and make changes in our own development. The constant in all this is the verse itself. When we listen to choral albums and concerts, or make those glorious statements in rehearsal and worship every week, we choral enthusiasts are reaffirming our belief in those sacred texts. And if we find ourselves humming those melodies as we make our way through life, it may just be because it is the texts, and not the melodies, that God has planted for us to hear as the real soundtrack of our day.
God, thank you for your word, which has been interpreted in countless ways throughout time. Help us to remember that regardless of musical interpretation or cultural spin, it is the texts which should be our focus and guide. Amen.