Long on Jesus

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings is the newly elected President of the House of Deputies. She has written an op-ed essay published in the Washington Post. I’m proud to be Episcopalian:

Episcopal churches: Short on politics, sexuality debates and long on Jesus

A matter of perspective

The Episcopal Church Welcomes YouI’ll begin by thanking Ann for sending the link to a Wall Street Journal article titled What Ails the Episcopalians by Jay Akasie. The article appears online in the “Houses of Worship” column on the Opinion webpage. The article states that Jay Akasie is “a journalist and Episcopalian” living in New York.

Jay’s article has evoked a strong critical response from those who attended the General Convention. Rather than tell you what to think I encourage you to read the article for yourself. Remember: just because it is published by the Wall Street Journal (or any newspaper or news service) there is no guarantee it is accurate. The critical responses (which I encourage you to read as well) especially point out factual errors in the opinion piece.

The article in question

Three responses to the article

I am more hopeful than ever about the desire of our Episcopal Church to seek and know God’s will and then have the courage to act upon that knowledge. I am more hopeful than ever that we will find a way forward together even if we don’t agree with each other on specific items.

Love your neighbor, love the earth, while sipping your Pumpkin Spice Coffee

With Cherry Remboldt, our deacon, Sherry (our co-facilitator) has approached the Outreach Commission of the Vestry about serving Fair Trade Coffee at St. Margaret’s. The Commission is studying the logistics of the proposal. Stay tuned. Meanwhile …

… Sherry reports that Fresh & Easy is offering fairly traded Pumpkin Spice Coffee for the fall. In her note to me she continues, “The reason I mention this is because, for one, it’s really good, and for two, I’ve never seen a fairly traded flavored coffee before … woo hoo! on behalf of coffee farmers and Fresh & Easy!”

Let us encourage each other (and our friends and neighbors) to purchase Fair Trade Coffee (and other items) to support farmers and other workers and to (better) care for the environment. This is something our bishops have gone on record to support with Bishop’s Blend Coffee and their Pastoral Teaching about stewardship of creation. Let us be “doers of the word.”

How long will the land mourn?

Today (10/4) our Church remembers that crazy saint (Francis of Assisi) who found sisters and brothers every place he turned. His great hymn of praise thanks God for Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Sister Water and Brother Fire. A favorite story of mine is how he brought peace to Gubbio through his conversation with Brother Wolf. In the spirit of Francis, with the insight of this holy man, the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a “Pastoral Teaching” in September 2011:

We, your bishops, believe these words of Jeremiah describe these times and call us to repentance as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth:
 How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways.” (Jeremiah 12:4)

The mounting urgency of our environmental crisis challenges us at this time to confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” “our waste and pollution of God’s creation,” and “our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268). It also challenges us to amend our lives and to work for environmental justice and for more environmentally sustainable practices.

They go on to outline their perceptions, offer their insights and commitment to work to heal creation, concluding:

…in order to honor the goodness and sacredness of God’s creation, we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, commit ourselves and urge every Episcopalian:

  • To acknowledge the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves, and to repent of any and all acts of greed, overconsumption, and waste that have contributed to it;
  • To lift up prayers in personal and public worship for environmental justice, for sustainable development, and for help in restoring right relations both among humankind and between humankind and the rest of creation;
  • To take steps in our individual lives, and in community, public policy, business, and other forms of corporate decision-making, to practice environmental stewardship and justice, including (1) a commitment to energy conservation and the use of clean, renewable sources of energy; and (2) efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and whenever possible to buy products made from recycled materials;
  • To seek to understand and uproot the political, social, and economic causes of environmental destruction and abuse; (iii) 
  • To advocate for a “fair, ambitious, and binding” climate treaty, and to work toward climate justice through reducing our own carbon footprint and advocating for those most negatively affected by climate change.

Read the Pastoral Teaching of the Bishops of the Episcopal Church

My question to Forum participants: how can we add our active commitment to the commitment made by our bishops? What kinds of things can we do at St. Margaret’s, RIGHT NOW, to walk with our bishops while following the footsteps of St. Francis? Leave a comment. Share your responses here or email me: Dan I think we can …

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

I cannot begin to state  how nervous I am to write about Bach. He is so important to church music, and his body of work is so vast that I’m sure I’m going to leave something out. Please feel free to correct or add on in the comments!

Deep breath….

Here we go.

Born into a musical family, Bach began his training with his father and his older brother. He played both violin and organ, but his primary interest was in composition. Like many composers, he learned composition by studying or arranging works by other composers. In doing so, he became well versed in French, German, Austrian, and Italian styles. Bach held a number of positions over the course of his career–organist at Arnstadt (1703-1707), organist at Muehlhausen (1707-1708), court organist and concertmaster for the duke of Weimar (1708-1717), and music director at a court in Coethen (1717-1723). He finally settled in Leipzig in 1723 where he served as “Cantor of St. Thomas and Director of Music in Leipzig” at St. Thomas’s School.

[Here I will greatly simplify Bach’s work so that I don’t go on and on and on about preludes, fugues, toccatas, and whatnot.] Bach wrote many works for harpsichord and organ. He also wrote for violin, cello, various combinations of chamber ensemble, and voice. In A History of Western Music, Donald Grout explains that Bach wrote in “all the genres practiced in his time with the exception of opera.”(1)

In church, we know Bach largely for his choral anthems, but he also wrote cantatas (both sacred and secular), motets, two Passions (St Matthew and St John) and the Mass in B Minor. During his lifetime, he was respected, but not overly popular. His potential fame was eclipsed by many of his contemporaries, and due to rapidly changing trends in music, much of his work fell into obscurity until the 1800s.

Bach was a profoundly religious person, and the letters “SGD,” standing for “Soli Deo Gloria” or “to the glory of God alone” can be found on many of his manuscripts. Gerhard Herz writes,

That Bach was a Christian has never been doubted. Yet he was not, as many writers have pointed out, a Christian who lived apart from his time, but one who in every respect lived and remained within the social and religious boundaries of his century. Bach’s personality and creations, which today move us chiefly aesthetically and emotionally, are deeply rooted in the ethos of the old Lutheran church.(2)

Grout writes,

Among the qualities that account for the continuing vitality of [Bach’s] music are his concentrated and distinctive themes, his copious musical invention, the balance he struck between harmonic and contrapuntal forces, the strong rhythmic drive, clarity of form, grand proportions, imaginative use of pictorial and symbolic figures, intensity of expression always controlled by a ruling architectural idea, and technical perfection of every detail.(3)

St Matthew Passion–“Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen” —
(Wiki page about St Matthew Passion)

St John Passion–“Ruht wohl ihr heiligen Gebeine“–
(Wiki page about St John Passion)

Mass in B MinorDona Nobis Pacem

Mass in B Minor–Osanna in excelsis

Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy)

Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life)

Everyone’s favorite wedding song (next to “Canon in D”)

There are so many great recordings of Bach, so if you feel up to it, do a little digging on YouTube or iTunes. I’ve only included choral arrangements, but there are many instrumental and solo works that are equally important.

Fun fact: The “BWV” that you see on the videos stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (Bach Works Catalogue), and it was developed by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950 to help us keep track of Bach’s works. This is common for composers with a large output. For example, Mozart’s works are organized by “K” number because that system was developed by Ludwig von Koechel. Similar systems exist for Schubert, Handel, Wagner, and many other composers.

So, what are your thoughts on Bach? Love him? Hate him? Let’s discuss!

1. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.
2. Herz, Gerhard. “Bach’s Religion,” Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music. Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1946), pp. 124-138.
3. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)

George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Germany in 1685. Though there were no musicians in his family, his father recognized his talent and allowed him to study composition, organ, harpsichord, violin, and oboe with composer Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. At an early age, he had a strong grasp of counterpoint and of Italian and German compositional tradition. In 1702, he began attending the University of Halle, and he soon began working as a cathedral organist. He spent much of his childhood education training to be a cathedral cantor, yet in 1703, he moved to Hamburg and began to focus on composing operas.

Handel frequently traveled to and from German, Italian, and English-speaking countries. From 1706-1710, he lived in Italy, studying Italian opera. He also spent a great deal of time in England developing oratorios and concertos. Over the course of his career, he wrote operas, concertos, oratorios, cantatas, suites, and sonatas. Unlike many composers who only achieved renown posthumously, Handel was beloved throughout much of his career.

Within the church, Handel is probably best known for his oratorios–Saul, Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, and so on. Without  a doubt, his greatest contribution to the development of the oratorio was the use of the chorus. He borrowed from the Lutheran and south German traditions but relied heavily on the English forms as well. In A History of Western Music, Donald Grout writes, “The monumental character of Handel’s choral style fits the oratorio’s emphasis on communal rather than individual expression.”(1) Handel also found ways to illustrate the text of an oratorio through devices such as word-painting (using a musical figure to illustrate what the words are saying).

There is so much more about Handel that can be said in one blog post. His compositional expertise has provided the church, the orchestra, and the opera stage a vast and much-loved body of work.

I’ll give Donald Grout the last word:

Handel’s historical significance rests largely on his contribution to the living repertory of performed music. His music aged well because he adopted the devices that became important in the new style of the mid-eighteenth century. Handel’s emphasis on melody and harmony, as compared to the more strictly contrapuntal procedures of Bach, allied him with the fashions of his time. As a choral composer…he had no peer. He was a consummate master of contrast, not only in choral music but in all types of compositions. In the oratorios he deliberately appealed to a middle-class audience, recognizing social changes that would have far-reaching effects on music.(2)

Messiah–“Every valley shall be exalted

Messiah–“There were shepherds abiding” (This recording is a little old, but it’s Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony, so I had to include it!)

Israel in Egypt–“The people shall hear and be afraid

Israel in Egypt–“The Lord shall reign for ever and ever

Judas Maccabaeus–“See the conquering hero comes” (Sound familiar? It was later adapted to form the hymn “Thine be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son.”)

There are so many more on YouTube and iTunes, so feel free to keep listening!

One of the great things about Handel’s music is that many people find it (or at least Messiah) familiar. Many community choirs perform his oratorios, and churches will often host Messiah “sing alongs” around Christmas. There’s something about his music that makes you want to be part of it rather than just listening. (Or maybe that’s just me–is it just me?)

We often relegate Handel to Christmas and Easter. Would you like to hear him more year-round, or do you think that only hearing his works every so often makes the experience more special? What are some of your favorite works by Handel? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

1. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
2. Ibid.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)


When I saw that Purcell was included among the ranks of Bach and Handel, I was initially surprised. When I think of Purcell, I think almost exclusively of baroque opera–specifically Dido and Aeneas. (Side note: Check out Jessye Norman singing “Dido’s Lament” here. Among most singers, I’d say this is what Purcell is best known for.) However, he did write a number of choral anthems that are still often sung in churches and university choirs.

Born in England and trained in the choir of the Chapel Royal, Purcell began serving as composer-in-ordinary to the King in 1677 and organist to Westminster Abbey in 1679. During his time as composer-in-ordinary, he composed operas (all “semi-operas” except for Dido), anthems and birthday odes for Charles II, James II, and William and Mary. In 1690, he began writing theatrical music full-time.

Over the course of his career, he wrote an opera (in which the music is continuous) and several semi-operas (in which the music is not continuous), music for plays, single songs, and various types of church anthems. He was a trained singer (countertenor) and is known for his exquisite and intuitive setting of text. Of Purcell’s text setting, Carol Kimball writes, “He is considered unsurpassed in setting the English language; his music has an unerring sense for depicting human emotions in a real and touching dramatic way, unparalleled for that time and rarely equalled since.”(1)  H. Wendell Howard writes, “Purcell is to English sung what Shakespeare is to English spoken.”(2)

Throughout his short life, Purcell was loved and respected as a composer. His contemporary Thomas Tudway described him as “…the greatest Genius we ever had.”(3)  Purcell died of unknown causes in 1695 (though most people speculate tuberculosis) and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

I’ll be honest–for a long time, I found Purcell…underwhelming. It all sounded the same–pretty, but repetitive. I really didn’t know what to listen for, but now I believe that part of the reason he is so repetitive is because he sets such poignant texts. (It’s also partly because of the Baroque style, but that’s a whole other post…) Take, for example, “Hear my prayer, O Lord.” The text is based on Psalm 102: 1, and it states, simply, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.” Through the use of both repetition and dissonance between the voices, Purcell builds tension, causing us to empathize with the plea of the Psalmist. Studying Purcell helped me to understand that good composers don’t just repeat things for the heck of it; they repeat things to cause you to feel and to understand the text.

There is so much of Purcell, both sacred and secular, that is worth listening to, but for the purposes of this post, I’m sticking to sacred texts.

“Rejoice in the Lord alway”

“Blessed is he that considereth the poor” 

“Remember not, Lord, our offences”

O God, Thou art my God

“Hear my prayer, O Lord”
(Having sung this one before, I can say that it is my favorite by far.)


So…what are your thoughts? Have you heard a lot of Purcell before? If not, what are your initial impressions? Do you find it easy to worship with this type of music, or do you find it distracting? Please do share!


Bonus: This has nothing to do with Purcell, but I came across it while looking for the Jessye Norman video. Who can resist a Jessye Norman/Kathleen Battle duet?
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”


1. Kimball, Carol. Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2006. 357.

2. Howard, Wendell H., cited in Carol Kimball’s Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature.

3. Tuppen, Sandra. The Purcell Society, “Biography of Henry Purcell.” http://www.henrypurcell.org.uk/purcell_biography.html. Accessed July 26, 2011.