Handel’s Messiah

What music comes to mind when we think of Christmas music more than Handel’s Messiah? But did you know that it was first performed for Easter, on April 13, 1742?Written in three sections (the prophecies about the coming messiah; the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection of Christ; the end times with Christ’s final victory over sin and death), this masterpiece of sacred music could, in fact, be performed year round.

Handel, born in Halle, Germany, spent part of his career in both Germany and Italy before moving to England. He became a naturalized citizen of Britain in 1727. In an interesting twist, his former patron in Germany, George the Elector of Hanover, was re-acquainted with Handel in England as King George I.

A prolific composer of many different vocal and instrumental pieces, over time, he became known more for his sacred music, especially oratorio (dramatic non-staged choral works). Among them is the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus from where we get our popular Easter hymn, Thine is the Glory.

Handel was given the libretto (or text) to Messiah and composed it in a very short time, over 3 or 4 weeks. It has been said that when he got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant found him in tears saying “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”. At the end of the composition, Handel wrote, “SDG” (Soli Deo Gloria) “To God alone the glory”.

Legend has it, that when King George attended a performance in London, he stood during the Hallelujah Chorus, in recognition of Christ as the King of Kings. Since no one sits when the King stands, the audience stood with him, a tradition that is maintained to this day.

Messiah debuted in Dublin to great acclaim and the performance was repeated in London shortly thereafter. Although originally performed at Easter, it quickly became a Christmas fixture.

Handel gave generously to various charities and his annual benefit concerts for London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. A portion of the proceeds from the Dublin premiere were given to a local debtor’s prison and hospital.

Shortly before his death in 1759, he attended a performance of Messiah in London at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.

Handel’s Messiah continues to hold audiences in awe, some 273 years later. I’ve always thought that there is a special place in Heaven for Handel just for writing this beautiful and inspiring piece of music.

Gallery Hymns

This Christmas, the choir will be singing A Gallery Carol. What an interesting title and why would it be called that? Usually a hymn is named after some part of the text, but a gallery hymn describes a tradition of hymn singing.
Gallery hymns or West Gallery hymns (sometimes called psalmody) is a tradition from English country churches and dates from a short period of time in the 18th and 19th centuries. This music was performed by and often written for amateurs. The name, West Gallery comes from the placement of the musicians in the west gallery of the church. The Victorians disapproved of these galleries as frivolous, and many were removed in the 19th century.
Smaller churches were not able to afford an organ. At first all singing was a cappella but over time, various instruments were used to accompany the singers. The bass line was the first to be reinforced with an instrument such as a cello or bassoon. Later, other instruments, such as flutes, clarinets and/or violins, were added to support the other parts.
As time went on and the tradition of instruments in the church became more established, many composers wrote music specifically for the ensembles by adding a few extra bars here and there as “colour” to the hymn singing.
The influence of a more standardized way of approaching worship eventually brought in smaller organs to replace the bands of musicians. It’s been said the clergy preferred a single musician since it was easier to keep an eye on and influence over one than many!
The gallery choirs and church musicians were depicted in the painting, The Village Choir, by Thomas Webster and in the novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy.
The tradition of gallery hymns came to North America in the form of Sacred Harp Singing (stay tuned for more on that!).
A wonderful rendition of Gallery Hymns is found on the CD, Sing Lustily and with Good Cheer, by Maddy Prior. You can find a sample on youtube. Look for Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, Who Would True Valour See.

Music of the Reformation

Reformation Sunday is October 25, 2015 and it might be interesting to reflect on how church music changed during this time. Of the various leaders of the Reformation movement (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and even Henry VIII) it’s been said that Martin Luther (being an accomplished musician himself) had the strongest connection to music and that he had the most impact on the music of the church and on composers who came after him.
The Word of God was brought closer to the people through the use of the national language (rather than Latin), and through music. Hymns were meant to be easily understood and would allow the congregation to participate fully as they offered their praise and thanksgiving in song. Luther considered music to be a gift from God, rather than a human invention and as such, was to be used in His service.
The text of the hymns was most important in worship and the music was to reflect this. The tunes were kept simple in order to make hymn singing accessible to all the people. From these simple tunes, basic harmony was added, also reflecting the text and this format gave rise the “chorale” we know today and the divisions of harmony we use: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
Martin Luther was a great proponent of the people’s music and used popular tunes, changing the words to sacred text. This practice was called contrafacta or “parodies” of secular songs. Our beautiful hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, can be traced back to a song by Hans Leo Hassler, My Peace of Mind is Shattered (by a tender maiden’s charms). This practice continues today as we use familiar tunes to new words.
As we sing our hymns, either as a simple tune or in four part harmony, we can reflect on how the words are made more meaningful to us and how each one of us is able to worship fully, praising God through music.

Reading the Fine Print

Have you ever looked at the fine print at the bottom of the hymns we sing each Sunday? There is a wealth of references and cross references to help you navigate the information from the indices at the back of the book.
Looking at the bottom of the book, there is the author of the text and the composer of the music. That is pretty easy to see. However, on the other side we see a name and some numbers.
Here we have the tune name. It usually means that was the name of the original tune. If you go to the back of the hymn book, on p. 1135, you will see the Alphabetical Index of Tunes. There you can look up the name of a tune you might like and see how many hymns fall under that name. For example, our current offertory hymn (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) is #691. The name of the tune is Barbara Allen. If you go to p. 1135 and look up Barbara Allen, you see there are 2 different hymns with that same name. (Just an aside, I almost named my daughter Barbara, after this tune!)
Another example is the tune Ar Hyd Y Nos, Welsh for All Through the Night. There are 3 hymns in our book with this tune. Hyfrydol, Welsh for “cheerful,” has 4 happy hymns to that tune.
The other interesting aspect of the fine print is the list of numbers under the tune name. That shows us the number of syllables in each line. Going back to Barbara Allen, you see 8 7 8 7. That means there are 4 lines, with 8 syllables in the first and third line and 7 syllables in the second and fourth lines. If you go to p. 1139, you will find the Metrical Index of Tunes. You can look up 8 7 8 7 and see that there are a number of hymns that could be interchanged. In theory, then, our tune, Barbara Allen, could be sung to 16 different hymns!
This fine print, then, gives us valuable historical references of tunes and enables us to match words and music to enrich the many aspects of our services throughout the church year.

Music from the Taize Community

If you look at the back of your hymnal (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), on page 119 you will see a number of hymns from the Taize community. We know them mostly as
short choruses, but there is much more to them than that.

Taize is an ecumenical monastic order, founded in 1940 and based in the south of
France. Thousands of young people from around the world make pilgrimages each
year to experience their simple life of study and prayer.

The music is reflective of music from around the world and uses simple chants,
choruses and canon (or rounds, where the voices enter at different times in the
music, singing the same song. We would know this from from the camp song “Row,
Row, Row Your Boat”). This repetitive style becomes meditative and offers a time for
personal reflection and prayer in song.

Much of the music has beautiful instrumental or vocal counter melodies that add to the emotional quality of the simple songs.
Next time we sing one of these simple songs, use the time to reflect on the lyrics and
use them as a quiet time for personal prayer and meditation.

For more information on Taize music:

taize music youtube

Bach as a Devout Lutheran

We all know of J. S. Bach as one of the most revered composers of all time and that many of our hymns were written or harmonized by him. His compositions, sacred or secular, were not only those of a dedicated musician, but also of a devout Lutheran.
His ancestors, in 1597, left Hungary to return to Germany in order to protect their Lutheran heritage from Roman Catholicism. They settled in an area of strong Lutheran connections, where Bach was born and schooled in the faith from a young age.
Many of his chorales were Lutheran in origin and he used them as the basis for music he strove to develop as a significant and meaningful part of worship. In mid 1700 he wrote the Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”) a collection of 46 organ preludes based on Lutheran chorales and embellished in a wide variety of forms and complex textures.
Bach is also known for his cantatas and around 200 have survived. They were written to reflect the message of the Gospel for every Sunday and Feast Day in the Lutheran calendar.
In the coming weeks, we will be hearing a selection from the famous Wachet Auf (Sleepers Wake) from Cantata 140 as well as his beautiful and moving harmonization of O Sacred Head Now Wounded.
Bach dedicated every piece of music he wrote, whether sacred or secular to the glory of God. He signed each composition S.D.G (To the Glory of God Alone). Today, he is commemorated in the Lutheran calendar on July 28, the day of his death.
When he died in 1750, it signified the end of the Baroque era. His music fell out of favour for over 100 years, when Felix Mendelssohn was given the manuscript for the St. Mathew Passion. The resulting performance brought Bach’s genius and significance back to the people of Germany and beyond. How wonderful for us to have this gift brought back to us and to be a part of our lives in so many ways!


This past month, the men’s choir sang the beautiful hymn, O Day of Peace  (hymn #711 in the ELW hymnbook). If it sounded familiar, it’s not surprising. The tune to this hymn has a long and well known past, embedded in English culture.
In 1916, Sir Hubert Parry set the now famous poem by William Blake, to music. Titled, Jerusalem, it quickly became known as England’s second national anthem.
Every year at the Promenade Concerts (or The Proms), Jerusalem, is featured at the closing concert. If you are not familiar with The Proms, it is a weeklong music festival, held in London at the Royal Albert Hall. The final evening features English composers and the prime spot for Parry’s anthem is at the very end, just before the festival closes with God Save the Queen. Take some time and look up, “Jerusalem at the proms”, on youtube. It’s quite a moving experience and imagine experiencing it live!
There are numerous recordings and arrangements of Jerusalem, including one by the rock group, Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. However, the most famous use, in contemporary culture, is from the movie, Chariots of Fire. Not only is the anthem figured prominently during the movie, the title itself comes from the words of the poem.
Parry himself, was not happy with the use of Jerusalem as a hymn, since it is not a prayer to God and has a rather militaristic feel to it. Over the years, many churches have taken the inspiring and moving tune and used it with other lyrics, more prayer like and less English-centric. This leads us back to our current Lutheran hymnbook, where the gentle and inspiring lyrics to O Day of Peace fill us with hope and the promise of God’s peace.
And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time- William Blake
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

Music and the mind book review: Alex Ross, Listen to This

This is the first book review from the “7 Essential Books” list. There is no particular order, however, being the last one read, it seems a good place to start as any.

Alex Ross is a long time music critic for the New Yorker Magazine and the essays in this book are an edited collection of previously published articles. His background,  interest and knowledge is wide spread and his writing style is engaging and informative.

At first glance, one would wonder how a book of seeminlgy unrelated articles could be placed on a list of music, emotion and the brain. He writes on a broad range of topics from Mozart to Bjork and Verdi to Dylan. However, as the book unfolds we see how composers, performers and teachers develop their particular understanding of music and how they communicate their understandings, beliefs and passions to their audiences.

One thread that appears off and on in the book is the “lamento bass“, a descending pattern designed to portray grief or sorrow.  Periodically, this idea emerges in discussions on composers and their works. The first appearance is a discussion in detail in the chapter Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues.  Later on, this theme appears in discourse on Bach, Beethoven, Dylan, Led Zepplin and Mozart among others.  This motif brings together composers, musicians and listeners throughout the history of western music in their innate understanding of the music.

There is something for all music lovers in this book. It is not necessary to read the chapters in order, but one could skip around depending on what their interests are.

For the classical music lovers, we have: Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Brahms

For the popular music crowd: Radiohead, Bjork, Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain, Dylan

For contemporary classical music: Esa-Pekka Salonen (Los Angeles Philharmonic), classical music in China, St. Lawrence Quartet, John Luther Adams

Music Education, ground breaking classical vocalists, recordings and the above mentioned Lamento round out a book full of stories, insight and information.

Alex Ross also wrote: The Rest is Noise


Music, Emotion and the Brain

Recently a friend posted a link to a list of “7 Essential Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain.”  Being a topic of considerable interest, a goal was set to read every book on the list. Now, halfway through, it sparked the idea to share my thoughts about each book, here on this blog.

Perhaps there are other books you would like to share with me. Have you read anything on music that sparked your interest in music, the brain, and emotion?  Maybe you have personal stories to share? Previous blogs here have cited other books and articles, some of which are on this list.

In no particular order, here are the books to be reviewed:

1. Listen to This, Alex Ross

2. Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks

3. Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How music captures our imagination, Robert Jourdain

4. This is your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin

5. Music Language and the Brain, Aniruddh Patel

6. The Tao of Music, Sound psychology, John M. Ortiz

7. Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr

Another book to add: The Inner Game of Music, Garry Green with W. Timothey Gallwey

Successive posts will take a book, one at a time, to try to give you a sense of what each contains. Hopefully your interest will be sparked enough to seek out some (or all) of the books to read on your own.

I look forward to beginning this project with you and hope that we can share opinions and ideas!

Here goes!

Music and Spirituality

We’ve all heard people say, “Music is my drug,” or, “Music is my religion.”  Most of us have had experiences where a melody, a chord progression or the full experience of a piece of music has given us goosebumps or made us loose track of everything around us while the music flows through us.

To call this phenomenon “feelings” or “emotions” only scratches the surface and fails to explain the depths of experience. We use the term “spirituality” to explain responses that involve the mind, body and soul. We hear the music, stop to listen and we are transcended. Spirituality can give us calm and peace or ecstatic feelings beyond our comprehension.

Spirituality is not religion. Religion is a “language” of sprituality. So is music. (Yob, 2010). As religion can tap into our spirituality, so can music. Music and religion often go hand in hand as languages of spirituality.  Most of the great composers have written glorious music with a sacred text. Bach, most notably dedicated his music, both sacred and secular, to the glory of God.

The Ottawa Citizen has a weekly column asking the religion experts a specific question. One of the questions was: Why is that in so many faiths, music plays and important role No matter the faith of the spiritual leader, from the many Christian denominations, to Sikh, Jewish, Bahaì and Humanists, the answers were remarkably similar. Phrases such as “inward yearning, transcendence, inner yearning, intangible, a conduit to one`s soul” were used to describe the indescribable. One thing music gives us is a unifying experience no matter our background.

It is part of the human condition to make and be involved with music. In a previous post, we looked at the biological roots of music. Music is part of the human condition and whether or not we have a religious faith to follow, we have the capacity to allow music to affect our physical body and our mental being bringing us to a higher level of consciousness. Palmer (2010) suggested that “music serves superbly as the bridge between the outer and the inner worlds.” He also suggested that “those who allow music to deeply affect them are in a supraconcious state ” and that this is a “consequence of what ìs happening in our body and our brains.”

Music has been called a universal language that can reach across cultures and time. Even that which we find unfamiliar can affect us if we allow ourselves that openess to new adventures and allow the music to speak for the spirit.

Music speaks what cannot be expressed,
Soothes the mind and gives it rest.
Heals the heart and makes it whole,
Flows from heaven to the soul.


Bogdan, D. (2010). The Shiver-Shimmer Factor: Musical Spirituality, Emotion and Education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, (Fall 2010), 111-129.

Palmer, A. J., (2010). Spirituality in Music Education: Transcending culture, exploration III. Philosophy of Music Education Review, (Fall, 2010), 152-170.

Yob, I.M., (2010). Why is Music a Language of Spirituality?. Philosophy of Music Education Review, (Fall, 2010), 145-151.

 Ask the Religion Experts: Why is it that in so many faiths, music plays and important role? Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 1013.