Brightest and Best

One of my favorite Epiphany hymns is “Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning.” Written by Reginald “Holy, Holy, Holy” Heber in 1811, it wonderfully ties together the visit of the Magi with our own offerings to Christ. Most hymnals combine it with the dime-a-dozen tune MORNING STAR, but the 1982 Episcopal hymnal makes a far better choice, pairing it with the outstanding tune from Southern Harmony, STAR IN THE EAST. (Music matters, friends!)

In 2013 the entire song was part of Church of the Servant’s Lessons & Carols service, and since that time we have sung verses 3 and 4 as our offertory hymn during Epiphany. The Southern Harmony harmonization is raw and we needed something that would work for pianists as well as guitar-based ensembles, so I wrote a new arrangement: MP3, PDF. I must humbly say that it is the best thing since sliced communion bread.

3. Shall we then yield him, in costly devotion
odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean,
myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

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People of the Lord in Madison, IN

One of the fun things about having a few songs in hymnals is that I’m introduced to new people via my music. I recently got an email from Jonathan, a music director in Madison, Indiana, asking for permission to introduce “People of the Lord” to his congregation. “Sure,” I said, “as long as I can add the newsletter article and recording to my blog.”

It’s fun to see churches using my music, but what I was most impressed by is that this music director is committed to teaching his congregation new music, introducing a new hymn from Glory to God each month! You can read his monthly updates here: http://www.madisonpresbyterianchurch.org/page/music_ministry.

Click on October for mine, or read below:

As I continue to sing through our new hymnal, Glory to God, this month another Psalm paraphrase struck me as being particularly well constructed.  “People of the Lord,” #632, is a setting of selected verses from Psalm 78.  I think my favorite aspect of this setting is the asymmetric meter.  This is just a music-speak way to say that the beats are not all of the same duration.  The time signature for this piece is 7/8 (cleverly apropos to a setting of Psalm 78) and is broken down 2+2+3 or short-short-long.  The use of asymmetric meter in a Psalm paraphrase hearkens back to the Genevan Psalter.  Another wonderful aspect of this Psalm setting is that the verses work in canon.  The verses are written from the Psalmist’s perspective and sung in unison (or canon).  Unison singing indicates the singular perspective of the Psalmist.  The refrain is sung from the perspective of the people of God and is sung in parts.  The part singing, then, indicates the plurality of the people of God.  Here is a link to a youtube video of the Psalm.

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Comfort, Come Again

Sadao Watanabe's "Flight into Egypt"

Sadao Watanabe’s “Flight into Egypt”

Amid all the “sleeping baby Jesus” songs of the season, we often forget that Jesus had a bumpy start to his life on earth: born away from home, his family was soon on the run again, this time to a foreign country. The only thing he left behind at his birth place was dozens of families whose boys had been killed by Herod, who had hoped to kill Jesus. You can read the whole story in Matthew 2. I assume that most of this was edited out of your Christmas Eve service!

Though the “slaughter of the innocents” and the “flight into Egypt” rarely make it into our Christmas imagination, I’ve been thinking that they may serve an important role for our congregations. Let’s face it: lots of us approach Christmas with dread and depression. We’re far from home, missing loved ones, mourning babies that were never born, or are just so sickened by the reality of the world around us that we have a hard time putting our hearts into a Norman Rockwell Christmas.

With this in mind, I penned “Comfort, Come Again.” (MP3, PDF) It’s a prayer that draws on the themes of Matthew 2 and recasts them in a way that they could be prayed and sung for either the characters of the biblical narrative or those of us today who are going through similar griefs and trials.

For all the weeping mothers, fathers;
For every empty chair.
For innocents, like lambs to the slaughter;
For life as thin as air.

Comfort, come again.

For all the starstruck seekers, wanderers,
Wondering why they left.
For all uprooted, fleeing families
Fearful of what’s ahead.

Comfort, come again.

For all the wayward sons and daughters;
For every restless soul;
For all the seekers, mourners, doubters,
Darkness will turn to dawn.

Comfort, come again.

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Mary’s Song/Our King of Peace (Kimbrough)

Mary+of+the+Annunciation+detail+face+of+Mary-1600x1200-514

When Cardiphonia released its new Songs for the Incarnation, I eagerly listened through the 23 song collection multiple times. (If you haven’t heard it yet, do yourself a favor and make it the soundtrack to your Christmas festivities.) One of the stand out tracks is Wendell Kimbrough’s “Mary’s Song.” Right away I knew I had to include this thoughtful rendering of the Magnificat in my church’s worship this year.

For my context, though, I needed a written piano accompaniment. And heck, if I’ve got strings and choir available, why not use them? So I wrote this arrangement:

PDF leadsheet
PDF piano accompaniment
PDF full score with choir and strings
MP3 my church with Bruce Benedict singing solo

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O Lord May Your Kingdom Come (Isaiah 11)

Sunday evening was Church of the Servant’s Lessons & Carols service. In it we sang a new song based on Isaiah 11: the peaceable Kingdom. The song was an East/West collaboration between Pakistani Eric Sarwar and me. He wrote the music based on the shiv ranjni raga and I wrote the text and arranged it for the instruments we had at our church. We called it “our experiment,” as we navigated between our music cultures. We decided after the service that the experiment was successful. It was a beautiful statement of longing for God’s promised Kingdom, which at times we can almost taste and other times seems very far off.

Very far off indeed. Today on my way to work I heard reports of a Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan that left 141 children dead.

It seems appropriate to post this song on a day that we pray, “The babe in arms shall fear no harm from the snake or the adder. O Lord, may your Kingdom come.”

MP3, PDF

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Restore Us, O God! (first draft)

Has it really been a month since my last post? Shame on me! Also shame on me for telling Naaman Wood back in August that I wanted to collaborate with him, and not doing anything about it until now.

One of the things he sent me was a setting of Psalm 80, still in draft form. My first attempt at setting it to music sounded too Getty. My second attempt was just a little lackluster. (You know, it’s not easy to write something that sounds fresh, but that is singable by a congregation!) But the third time was the charm. I went with more of a folk ballad feel. It reminds me a little bit of the Yiddish song “Donna Donna” by Aaron Zeitlin and Sholom Secunda, made famous by Donovan, Joan Baez (video below), and my new favorite, Nehama Hendel. I thought the minor feel fit the pleading nature of Psalm 80 well.

This is as much of a demo I could create on an Advent morning before most of the church staff arrived. It starts out Donovan and ends up Jack White: MP3

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Somos uno en Cristo / We Are One in Christ Jesus

There’s a wonderful little song called “Somos uno en Cristo” that is making its way into a number of recent hymnals. Unfortunately, the arrangement that invariably appears with the song doesn’t bring out the best in it. I decided to write an accompaniment that allowed the melody to flow more freely, that included the characteristic V7 chord lifting into the B section, and that added a little tag at the end where people could catch their breath before singing the next verse. Nothing fancy, but it helps: MP3, PDF.

Now someone needs to work on the translation…

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God Himself Is with Us, flute descant

My golden rule of worship planning is “people first.” That is, instead of planning a bunch of great songs and then squishing some musicians into your plan, you should plan songs that you think your musicians can lead well.

This Sunday’s musicians included flutist Kristen Zoeteway. One thing I know about Kristen is that she’s always up for a challenge. Give her a difficult part and a few days to practice and she’ll nail it. So when I was choosing music for the service I included “God Himself Is with Us,” for which I wrote a flute descant a few years ago. But I couldn’t leave it at that, could I? No, I decided I needed to bookend that verse 3 descant with a theme and variations style flute intro.

Here it is: PDF, MP3

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Psalm 47: Clap Your Hands, for cantor, choir, flute, and percussion

When I was working on Global Songs for Worship, I found a Yoruban song in the collection Ẹ Kọrin S’Oluwa, edited by Godwin Sadoh. It was published as “Psalm 47: Clap Your Hands” in both Global Songs for Worship and Psalms for All Seasons, as well being recorded on the GSfW CD.

I’m pleased to say that as of Sunday morning, it is now also an anthem for cantor, choir, flute and percussion. Take a listen to the COS choir leading it: MP3. It is surprisingly simple to sing, which isn’t always the case with African songs and arrangements. In fact, because the congregation had already sung the song on a number of occasions, I had them join the choir on verses 2-4.

 

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Who Can Compare?

I’ve been reading the book of Isaiah lately, and when I got to Isaiah 40:12-26, I thought, “This sounds familiar.” Indeed. 16 years ago I wrote a song based on that passage.

It’s fun to go back to old songs, because time allows for some perspective. This song, for example, is a reasonable rendition of this scripture. But it’s not a great song. The lyrics are good, but somehow don’t pull you in. The melody is memorable, but a bit glib. (In my defense, it was written at a time when songs like “I Will Celebrate” were in vogue.) The pacing is too slow–four verses go on for over five minutes.

all_misfit_toys_welcome_here-1.jpg

Photo from the animated television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Credit: Rankin/Bass (formerly Videocraft International, Ltd.), and DreamWorks Classics, a subsidiary of DreamWorks Animation.

And that’s why I created a new page at my main website called the “Island of Misfit Songs.” Like its namesake, “The Island of Misfit Toys,” from the animated special Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this is the place where good, but not quite great songs reside on my website.

To summarize: This blog is an unfiltered musical diary, mostly focusing on new music I’ve written or recorded. My main website is my official catalog of works, including a new pages for Psalm songs, hymn tunes, and a list of songs by scripture. The Island of Misfit Songs is my attempt to trim back the good in order to leave room for the best, without erasing them from the site entirely.

Feel free to vote songs on or off the island.

 

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