TAO May 2019–May Madness

I never paid much attention to college basketball’s March Madness until I saw its effect upon my former senior pastor. With no other reason to account for it, this brilliant, hard-working man started exhibiting distracted behaviors just about the time Lent got into swing. Had he added extra spiritual disciplines to his devotional routine? Uh, no. What tipped me off was the faraway look in his eyes along with frequent glances at his mobile device. Confirmation of my suspicions came about when I overheard him regaling others with hoop adventures that might have been his own, except for an absence of skill on the basketball court. He had succumbed to March Madness! Let us pray…
March Madness is over, and the glory of Easter is passing, too. But, it’s May, and Pentecost’s flaming tongues are on the horizon. Pentecost is the church’s own peculiar form of spring madness, and this time, I am the one who has succumbed! My madness this May comes from new music overload. There are so many fine young composers speaking in their own tongues, I can’t list them all. There are so many well-written chorale preludes that no one can know them all. I give up!
Since the days of Flor Peeters and Paul Manz, composers in the hymn prelude tradition have proliferated. The next generation followed with Michael Burkhardt, who has set the record for the most arrangements ever, and David Cherwien and Mark Sedio and John Behnke and Robert Hobby and Wayne Wold and Charles Callahan and…you get the picture. Now another generation has come along, with even more creative works to enjoy. What do these newbies have in common? They are all church musicians creating music, just like their predecessors, for their own use, and we are the beneficiaries of their work.
My madness now fully confessed, let’s look at my incomplete list of newish composers. Since my words will not be able to fully describe each unique voice, I recommend that you go to the publishers’ websites, where you will often find sample pages to look at. Previewing before you buy will give you confidence in ordering new music from your music seller.
Kevin Hildebrand and Matthew Machemer, who are co-cantors at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, write very accessible music at an early intermediate level. Both are published by Concordia Music. Kevin has compiled ten volumes of Six Hymn Improvisations, any one of which will give you a window onto his musical world. You can see Matthew’s world through Enter His Gates with Praise and Lord of our Life. Both composers are promoting Lutheran chorale traditions, while adding mainstream hymns and newly composed hymn tunes to the mix.
As impossible as his name is, Benjamin Kolodziej, writes at an entirely possible intermediate level. His arrangements of standard hymns come with vital rhythms and shifting harmonies that delight the ears. To get a better picture of his work, Look at Gates of Beauty or Jesus Loves Me: Organ Settings of William Bradbury Tunes, both published by Concordia.
Jacob Weber, who inherited his craft directly from Behnke and Burkhardt, is another prolific composer in the Lutheran tradition. Ranging from intermediate to early advanced, Jacob has amassed multiple volumes in several series. You will find his easiest material in ten volumes of the “Musica Sacra” series where manuals-only and easy-pedals arrangements invite beginners’ explorations. His multi-seasonal “Mosaics” series, written an intermediate level, seeks to cast traditional Lutheran chorales in new and creative ways. Jacob’s grounding in the Baroque musical language shines through here. His newest volume, Organ Impressions for the Church Year, is his best. This volume, along with his four-volume “Soli Deo Gloria” series extends his hymn tune choices further into the mainstream. Recently, Concordia Music Publishers, where he is an editor, released two volumes of Three Pieces for Festive Occasions, which I have already reviewed.
The multiple volumes of the Hymn Tune Innovations of Benjamin Culli, also published by Concordia, asks for a step from intermediate to upper intermediate skills. Though they remain as solidly tonal as earlier composers, his counterpoint and rhythmic expectations are more complex. While you’re at it, you should look at his Two Triptychs for Organ, where he has given much more flair (including a quote from Debussy) to “The God of Abraham Praise” and “Old 100th” than you will find elsewhere.
More working church musicians from the house of Lorenz are also offering very useful material for you to consider. Jason Payne, keeps everything in Jubilation mode with three volumes to look at. His two volumes of Dynamic Hymn Introductions show make you want to go worship at his church! Every hymn tune is in the mainstream pocket, so these volumes are worth the investment. David Kidwell, both a symphony conductor and an active church musician, has written two very useful volumes: That Promised Land, comprising ten thoughtfully arranged African-American spirituals, and Tune My Heart, ten 19th century American hymns that everyone loves to sing. I recommend you look at these for something your congregation will find new, yet familiar.
So many composers to share! Alas, we will have to draw this madness to a close before I can get to the end of my list. I hope you will also look at the works of Roberta Rowland-Raybold, Jeffrey Blersch, David Schelat, Tom Trenney, Karen E. Black, and the many other talented composers who are responding to the spirit of creativity. The Pentecost is not over, so we can expect to see more music coming from all these composers. It’s hard to keep up with everyone, but you can keep tuned to someone new. My advice? Explore widely, but don’t drive yourself mad––you can see what happened to me!

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