by Rev. Timothy Eberhardt, The Mountain Echo, Randolph, Vermont
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Read notes for St. John's Trilogy (1990) for congregation, SATB choir, and organ
"Being from a traditional Methodist background, I had been raised on our stirring Protestant hymns since I was old enough at three or four to attend Sunday School. Later, however, the Episcopal tradition of the service music in praise and worship added to those hymns started to fill a need in me to complete the whole worship experience."
So reflected a parishioner in a series of comments on "what music means to me" which were interwoven into the litrugy of worship at St. John's in Randolph on December 9 (1990) and read by the Rector Timothy Eberhardt. The occasion was the introduction and dedication of the three new settings for the Rite II Gloria in Excelsis, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, "A Trilogy of Sacred Music for St. John's Parish in Randolph, Vermont" by local Braintree composer Gwyneth Walker. The story of the music's composition from commissioning to final dedication is told here with a sampling of those reflections. Because we seldom think of how music has affected our lives, it is a story which touches far more deeply than any of us would have suspected, not only on the spiritual life of a Church both local and ntational, but on the inner faith journeys of its individual members.
"While we are excellent pioneers who are always trying out new hymns, new service music, new expressions of worship, we still like to rejoice in what is old familiar music too."
There is, of course, always a tension in our Anglican life and worship when familiar forms of dignity and tradition meet with alternatives and revision. Thus, for instance, it is ironic that we end up using a setting by Franz Schubert for a modern, Rite II Sanctus or Agnus Dei. So concluded a group of us as we fell into the conversation after Gwyneth had joined us at St. John's to share a recording of her recent work, Bethesda Evensong, commissioned for that Florida parish's centennial celebration. This meeting was continuing a friendship between her and the rector which had begun when, earlier over the phone, he had suggested the text of that beautiful, typically Anglican prayer "In the Evening" (BCP, p. 833) which Gwyneth had then set as both a sung prelude and postlude to the rest of the Evensong arrangement.
"In my life music has always helped to make up the fabric of worship. The sermons, the readings, the prayers, were held together by the music. More than that, while growing up the words may have been long lost, but the feelings of joy, despair, celebrration, peace and hope -- the real stuff of my spiritual life -- are still and always will be alive through that music of worship."
"Why don't I try something"? responded Gwyneth, and a new commission was launched. That was the spring of 1990 but the project would take leavening, not to mention numerous intervening engagements of a budding composer such as sung debuts of other of her pieces in Carnegie Hall, scheduled performances in Alaska and work on the commissioned Bicentennial Suite for Vermont's 1991 celebration. It would also require Gwyneth's usual energetic attention to that "sitz im lebel" or life's setting in which the songs would be planted. (An example of such attention occured when Gwyneth, once an amateur tennis champ, had written Match Point for her game partner who was band director at Randolph Union High School; the work ended up being played by the Little Orchestra Society in New York under the direction of Billie Jean King armed with a tennis racket in place of baton!) For us at St. John's that meant a small lively parish where the congregation-as-choir has, like so many other parishes, done a lot of experimentation with the new liturgies and with the new hymnal -- with varying degress of satisfaction.
"Since I have the opportunity to lead the congregation in music with the organ, I have enjoyed exploring all the various types of music we use -- hymns, service music, even the 'background/travel' music. It is all part of our worship experience together. I hope to keep growing in this are to refine my contribution to the music worship of St. John's."
Further, with Gwyneth's teaching skills and eye for excellence, it meant consultations during the early fall of 1990 with Tim Strickland, music director at St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington ("Do we have to stick to these exact words?"), with the rector and others. Then started a careful process of composition and almost daily pencil-in-hand work-throughs with parishioner organists Mary Ellen Black and Shirley Baumann. These were all carefully guarded until training sessions could begin with the church's ad hoc corps of special choir singers to hammer out final refinements and harmonies.
"Sundays I am often amazed first at how much we have done as a group working through so many ritual expressions of word and movement, but secondly, at the same time, how different every Sunday seems to be from the exact same order of the week before. I believe music is one of the key forces in this. Like the ocean, it takes us into ever-changing moods, but above all, it brings a sense of joyfull community to all we do and enlivens our every response within that celebration of Eucharist and Christian servanthood."
Even the Sunday School became a choir for the all-church introduction and dedication on December 9 (1990). The children provided the introit with the delicately reflective and simple setting of the Agnus Dei, again, well coached by the composer. Since it was Advent, the Gloria, with its driving climatic movement and exuberance, was saved for a triumphant conclusion before the final blessing (ironically right were former Prayer Book liturgies have placed it for many years past). Sermon time provided an opportunity both for more parishioners' reflections as read by the rector, comments from Gwyneth, with some spontaneous congregational remarks such as "When I hear certain hymns, I feel God is embracing me with arms of love." It was also a chance for the choir to try out the Sanctus with the congregation.
"Music to Bach was the praise of God. To me it is also the manifestation of God on earth to us through its unification of human passion and the physical creation -- as mediated by our bodies -- of sound waves in air, of varied frequencies, forming the melodies and harmonies sublimely attuned to our breathing and hearing, our heartbeats, and pulses -- our being."
With those words as introduction, the organ then began its pulsating introduction of the Gloria in Excelsis sung first by the choir and then, after the final blessing and dismissal, by the whole congregation under the direction of church music director Susan Westbrook. At the Offertory the director and the composer had presented the new scores for dedicaton.
Tapes of the service revealed a momentary hush at the end of that final rendition, a few exultant "Whews!" and, suddenly, applause. It was not Bach or even Schubert. This was Walker and a full congregation gathered in a small railroad town nestled in the rural hills of central Vermont had just entered into a new experience of triumphant praise.
"Glory to God in the highest!!"