Monthly archives "September 2017"

TAO October 2017–For All the Saints

Music still has a trick or two to teach this old dog. A few years ago, we lost my wife’s mother, Pat, whom I loved deeply. It wasn’t an easy passage for any of us: she had gone down the hallways of lost memory quickly. Before her service, the family was escorted to the front of the sanctuary. As I sat there waiting for the service to begin, I heard the organ. It was my friend, Susan Caudill, playing. She was playing the old hymns of comfort and reassurance, and the sounds entered by way of the back door of my heart. With no effort on my part, I felt the pain of the past months begin to melt away. The music surrounded me, filling my emptiness with warmth, offering the gift of peace. I was receiving a benediction, “The peace that passes all understanding.” From the intimacy of that moment, I gained a deeper appreciation for the unique role that music plays in comforting and uplifting us in times of grief.
Times of bereavement prove that music is at its best where words leave off. Emerging from that experience changed the way I prepare for memorial services. It was Susan’s caring heart that spoke to me through the notes she played. I want to do the same for each family that comes to my church for support. They may not know what the ultimate memorial service, All Saints’ Day, is celebrating, but I do. It’s my job to bring ‘the communion of the saints’ into my preparations. I do it with joy. I want to honor the deceased and comfort the family. Yet, without fail, I gain something for myself, too. Every story shared in honor of the deceased gives me a new appreciation for life itself. With spiritual and emotional preparation, playing memorial services offers us music ministers something special the family will never know about. I consider it one of the perks of the office.
Personal preparation leads to the next step, which is learning all you can about the cultural background of the deceased and the family. What music is their heart-language? This information can come from several sources: directly from the family, from the pastor, or from the memorial coordinator. The answer will give you important clues to guide your music selections. What kind of service will it be—a funeral, a memorial service, a “celebration of life?” You can gain some insight into the family’s desires just from this simple item of information. A funeral implies a more sober, reflective environment than a memorial service, which is a mid-point on the spectrum of services. In the past few years, some families have begun avoiding the solemnity of remembrance services by requesting “a celebration of life.” I always program more gently rhythmic music, often including a few “contemporary” hymns.
Clues from your investigation into the background story of the family will guide your selection of music. We have a wide range of material to choose from, including classic literature and hymn-tune based pieces. Let the church background and the age of the deceased guide you through the forest of evangelical, gospel hymns, classic hymns, spirituals, along with more recent additions to the hymnody.
In planning a program for the prelude, our sister profession, music therapy, has some wisdom to offer. In its model, the first musical selection matches the dominant emotional tone of the people. A tragic death will evoke a different choice from the passing of a beloved elder. The next selections reflect a transition from the first piece to ones of comfort, eventually moving toward music that offers uplift and reassurance. You want to end up here, regardless of the starting point.
If you do your research well, every program will be different. Such flexibility could mean that you have a whole pile of books on the bench beside you. I have developed a system that has decreased the height of my pile, while giving me access to all the different types of music I need. It starts with a three-ring binder divided into these categories: classic pieces, classic hymns, evangelical hymns, spirituals, and postludes. When I find a useful piece, I put it in the binder. Over time, I have built quite a collection of well-tested works that cover a wide range of needs. When it’s time to build a program, I take the family’s special requests, make the rest of my selections from this binder, and put it into a smaller notebook dedicated solely to the service I am preparing. As soon as it’s over, I return the pieces to the larger binder, so they will be ready for the next service.
Frankly, you don’t need to buy much new music for memorial services, because there are treasures hidden in almost every book you own. I recommend you look at your music library with a curatorial eye, seeking pieces just for this one purpose. If you have already made a list of the hymns that are special to your congregation, it will be even easier to find good, appropriate arrangements.
In case you are looking for some new ideas, here is a book focused solely on music for memorial services. From publisher, Kevin Mayhew, comes The Essential Book of Funeral Music (1400472). Here are fifty of the most familiar pieces drawn from the well of 18th and 19th century literature. To this book, I would add the Brahms Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 and two of Marcel Dupre’s 15 Pieces Founded on Antiphons (Masters Music Publications 54466511), “I Am Black but Comely” and “How Fair and Pleasant Thou Art.” Two other of my favorites are Jean Langlais’, “Prelude Modal,” found in the first volume of 24 Pieces for Harmonium (Philippo), and Anton Dvorak’s “Largo” from Symphony #9. And, there are also two very useful books from Dom Paul Benoit, Fifty Elevations and his Esquisses Liturgiques, which were originally published in the U.S. by Fischer & Bro/Belwin Mills. They will be worth the search.
Arrangements of spirituals are just about everywhere these days. You might not know about the collections that James Abingdon has compiled, King of Kings, Vols. 1 & 2 (GIA G-7236 & G-7489. In these two volumes are fine arrangements of several spirituals not easily found elsewhere, including “Talk About a Child Who Do Love Jesus.” In the sixth volume of Laudate! (Concordia 97-6792), editor James Kosnik has assembled another impressive list of works by African-American composers. There you will find “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” along with nice arrangements of other spirituals. These volumes also contain worthy works for postludes and concerts, making them especially valuable for your library.
As I said, hidden within your library are useful hymn tune settings that are waiting for discovery. Whether classic, evangelical/gospel, or new-ish tunes, hymns are the foundation of memorial service music. You will choose them based upon your knowledge of the family’s background and the circumstances surrounding the service. Several composers have dedicated significant effort in creating a body of literature for our use. Some of these publications are going to stand the test of time. I have already recommended Dale Wood’s Softly and Tenderly series, as well as his Woodworks series. You really can’t go wrong with these. His sensitive writing shows each hymn in all its beauty without wearing out the ear with overly rich harmonies. Let me add his Woodworks on Original Themes (SMP 70/1100S) to the list. The quiet pieces therein show Wood’s personal gift for heartfelt melody that are only hinted at in his hymn arrangements. They speak of deep love; you will be blessed by them. Robert Hobby’s three volumes of For All the Saints: Hymn Preludes for Funerals (AugsburgFortress) are an intermediate player’s dream, with lovely settings of all the classic memorial service hymns.
Newer publications include a recent addition to the Augsburg Fortress Library, Healing and Funeral (AF9781451462616) offering a wide array of hymns and spirituals in one large volume, including two classic arias by Flor Peeters and Jan Bender. Franklin Ashdown has produced a new volume, Adagios of Hope and Peace (AF9781506413587), containing seven hymn tune settings and three free compositions, all expressing the whole range of feelings that memorial services encompass. Robert Powell eight sets of Prayerful Preludes, published by MorningStar, provides easy, quiet, two-page arrangements of familiar hymns. They are easy to learn and satisfying to the listener. Only slightly more challenging are the eleven settings in David Cherwien’s Hymn Interpretations Series: Hymns of Serenity. (Lorenz 70-1488S) and the Gospel Prelude Collection (MSM 10-642) by Charles Callahan. Both volumes are a pleasure to play.
If you are still looking for good postlude material, join the club! Just what should we play as people are leaving the service? Surely something uplifting, something hopeful, without being too loud or bouncy. I have found Handel’s “Largo” from Xerxes to be dignified classic for quieter exits. Equally dignified is Timothy Albrecht’s arrangement of “A Mighty Fortress” found in Grace Notes, Vol. VI (AF 9780800656867), which quotes a stirring Bach cantata theme in the ritornello. Franklin Ashdown has recently published a whole volume of Postludes on Hymns of Faith and Assurance (AF9781451479560), which has given me more choices than I have ever had. You will want to end Celebration of Life services with livelier choices, including arrangements of “Hymn to Joy,” “Jesus Shall Reign,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” Praise to the Lord.” Knowing the tone of the service is the key to selecting just the right piece for sending the people out.
Every generation finds its own music. Now that Boomers are entering into the picture, it is important to expand your range of literature to include “new” songs that are meaningful to them, such as “As the Deer,” “Seek Ye First,” “Thy Word,” “On Eagles’ Wings,” and “Lamb of God,” Two volumes by Douglas Wagner are a good starting place: Songs of Praise and Seek Ye First (Hope). From time to time, families will request music I don’t know. If possible, I try to accommodate them. I have found my contemporary music director to be a helpful resource. When you are faced with short deadlines and unfamiliar music, he or she may be the right person to include as a soloist in the service. A blend of traditional and contemporary music styles may be the perfect solution.
Memorial services are an important part of our work, friends. There are often folks unfamiliar with the church’s tenets in attendance. It is a chance to serve them with a ministry that only music can offer. It is our opportunity to live into our calling to bring The Holy into the world. Music passes through the gates of life and death with messages love, hope and peace for all who need comfort. You hold the key. Lead the way.