Monthly archives "March 2015"

TAO April 2015

Does your church do “patriotic” in worship? I live in a Navy town, and my church expects something big on all three national holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans’ Day. This is a conflict for me, because I was trained in churches that play them down for all the correct theological reasons there are. Unfortunately, my reasons for keeping a clear separation between church and state are trumped by my congregation’s desire for the church to validate the state in worship. All those holidays take a lot of music, and I am often scrambling to find something appropriate to play. Here are the results of my search. If your church doesn’t do much to mark such patriotic holidays in worship, you have my permission to skip this article. There are lots of other things to think about this time of year: Youth Sunday, Mothers’ Day, and maybe even a church festival or two. Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, anyone? Anyone??
Of course, it is as much our job to meet the needs of the people we serve as it is to set standards of taste. People love to celebrate national holidays; they have a direct appeal to the heart. The music we play can be as direct and simple as hotdogs, picnics, and fireworks; however, over time, I have come to realize that each holiday has its own particular flavor. Memorial Day calls for dignity and restraint, honoring the fallen. Independence Day is on the opposite end of the spectrum, calling for fireworks of celebration. Veteran’s Day, calling for noble, uplifting cadences, honors the living who have served at one time or the other. It helps to know that the simple choice of a hymn tune prelude over program music nudges us in the direction of worship. Many hymns serve equally well on any of the holidays, so let the mood of the arrangement guide your choices.
Here are some direct-to-the-heart choices from the time vault. Carol Johnson compiled “Let Freedom Ring” (Lorenz 70/1398L) in 1992. These nine pieces, simple and useful, include several well-arranged standards and the only arrangements of Let There Be Peace on Earth and Once to Every Man and Nation that I have found. Gordon Young’s 1975 “Patriotic Prelude” is available from Harold Flammer (print-on-demand). Rex Koury’s 1986 “Fantasia on America the Beautiful,” with all the unself-conscious flashes of patriotic pride that mid-century theater harmonies and parallel-chord fanfares can muster, is also available print-on-demand from Lorenz.
Composers from all over the spectrum have contributed to the repertory, including Dennis Janzer, who offers “Intrada and Trumpet Tune on National Hymn” (Op. 8, Wayne Leupold). It is an easy march with an effective countermelody that provides a contrast to the much-loved tune. The same song in a similar style is Wayne J. Kerr’s “Festival Fanfare and Prelude on God of our Fathers” (MorningStar 10-880). Both of these works balance dignity with excitement. On a smaller scale is Janet Linker’s “Meditation and Variations on America” (Beckenhorst OC 6). Staying comfortably within limited technical demands, the wide variety of moods and textures make this a very useful work.
Charles Callahan, once again the organist’s best friend, has nearly cornered the market on useful patriotic literature. His “Two Patriotic Pieces for Organ” (Concordia 977560) includes very simple, sight readable variations on Melita (Eternal Father, Strong to Save) and a nice arrangement of America. “Spirit of America”(Concordia 977019) includes a very effective Postlude on National Airs, plus a number of other American hymns. “A Patriotic Suite” (MorningStar 10-865) starts off with Melita, goes to America the Beautiful, and ends with a colorful arrangement of the National Anthem that defies expectation. His subtle harmonic alterations perk up listeners’ ears and so does the right hand triplet figuration over the left hand melody. This one I am adding to my collection! If you have a trumpet soloist, take a look at his “A Patriotic Prelude” (Concordia 976075, download).
A slighter wider range of literature comes to us from three other composers. To bring a smile of recognition to your service, consider “Yankee Doodle Variations” by Dennis Janzer (W. Leupold). These delightful pieces have a lot of variety and are easy to prepare. For something completely unexpected, look at Charles Ore’s Glory Rock from “Eleven Compositions for Organ, Set IX” (Concordia 977446). It’s a great “mash up,” this combination of Battle Hymn, Toplady (Rock of Ages), and the Star-Spangled Banner! And, of course, the boundless imagination of Emma Lou Diemer gives us “God and Country” from Sacred Music Press (print-on-demand). If you don’t know her work, here another chance to see how her rhythmic drive and harmonic piquancy transform the familiar into something brand new. She covers seven of the standards you expect to see, adding Not Alone for Mighty Empire to the mix.
Memorial Day is not so far away. I often select an appropriate elegy for the prelude. George Thalben-Ball comes to mind; so does Flor Peeters’. Elgar’s “Nimrod Variation” is highly effective. If you are up to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or the well-loved Albinoni “Adagio in G Minor,” you have all you need. If you are comfortable with transcribing piano music, take a look at the theme from the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” Hymn to the Fallen by John Williams. Whether you know this piece or not, the people in your congregation do, and it speaks to them. It is available in sheet music format from,, or your local music dealer.
I have saved what I consider to be the best for last. I highly recommend the Robert Powell “An American Tribute: A Suite of Patriotic Songs” (MorningStar 10-589) Here are five movements of simple, thoughtful writing that passes through all the appropriate Memorial Day hymnary. It even includes “Taps.” Powell has a 19th century poet laureate’s heart. His evocative titles set the scene for each movement: “War is the Blemish on Any Nation’s Character,” “The Grief of Separation Tempered by Faith,” “National Glory is Restored.” There is enough in this one volume to play a complete service.
By the way, in case I didn’t make it clear, I am at peace about celebrating national holidays in church. There is so much celebrate about our nation; where better to celebrate than in church? Truly, we rely upon music to touch the heart. Help your congregation get to the heart of the American dream. Do you ever shed a tear while playing these songs? I do.