This Sunday is Bach's birthday...or is it? It is not as easy to answer as one would think. However, Bach scholar and Harvard professor Christoph Wolff 's answer to this question posed by Michael Barone, host of "Pipedreams," settles it for me:
"Moving Bach's birthday is absolutely ridiculous. True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700 — but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid...Hold on to March 21, and feel good about it!"
And so we will! This Sunday morning, two works inspired by the very letters of Bach's last name and one by the man himself on the occasion of turning 336.
The Bach motif originated with Bach himself as a way of "signing" his name into his compositions and to provide a challenging melodic fragment to compose with. The notes are Bb (in German musical terminology, called B). A, C, and B (called H in German musical terminology.) A respectable number of works have been composed over the centuries to honor Bach in this way including by Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, and Arnold Schoenberg.
This Sunday, the third fugue in G Minor from Robert Schumann's "Six Fugues on the Name BACH" (1845) will be offered. The Plymouth Ringers play "A Zephyr on B-A-C-H", a work I composed which began with the conspicuous question of, "What would an enchanted windchime, given the chance in a warm breeze and a penchant for Bach, sound like?" Just in case you wondered...
The morning service concludes with Bach's "Fantasia in C Major, BWV 570." This uncommon selection in Bach's repertoire has the musical flexibility to be played either quietly and delicately or with bombast and gravitas. We'll go with the latter this week.
At the 6:00 p.m. service, songs from the Iona Community will gather us in with a short tribute to Bach as well in Jethro Tull's "Bourée" with flutist Aaron McGrew.
A Celtic Sunday all around as we honor St. Patrick's Day and the beautifully haunting Celtic folk music tradition.
At 10:00 a.m., harpist Alaina Bongers and flutist Rebecca Quillen offer a wide breadth of Celtic and folk-inspired music including the Irish ballad "Star of the County Down" and "Wondrous Love." Though first appearing in the 1854 edition of The Southern Harmony, the melody for "Wondrous Love" was taken from a popular English ballad.
At 6:00 p.m., violinist Abigail Morgan joins us for a Celtic tour-de-force of jigs, reels, and the lovely waltz "SÍ Bheag SÍ Mhór" by famed 18th century Irish harp composer Turlough O'Carolan. Sláinte!
A line from Nirvana's 1992 hit "Come As You Are" could have been uttered by the Pharisees in the Gospel reading this Sunday: "Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be...." Hypocrisy incarnate as these self-appointed arbiters of souls decide who will receive salvation in God — a demand of conformity to a false sense of righteousness. Jesus begged to differ...
An intense and gradual crescendo of earnest devotion and, well, the addition of organ stops runs through the prelude, a setting of the hymn "Just As I Am" by Paul Rutz. As if pleading to the Christ ("Lamb of God, I come, I come!"), the dramatic and moody work effectively portrays the hymn text's message of humble service to the Light despite one's perceived faults and unworthy attributes.
Aaron Copland composed twelve settings of poems by Emily Dickinson published as a song cycle in 1950. This Sunday we hear the third song, "Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?" The text first questions the petty reasons for not being admitted into paradise. This quickly turns into frustration and anger as heaven itself seems to simply ignore the noisy objector. One can see how some would face this injustice, even daily, in this world.
The service ends with a blast from the 19th century in "Allegro maestoso," the penultimate movement from Organ Sonata No. 2 in C Minor by Felix Mendelssohn. An energetic and jubilant piece from the sonatas that were considered the finest organ works since J.S. Bach in this era. Mendelssohn like Schumann and Brahms were students of Bach and the Baroque era which sensibilities informed their compositions significantly. For Mendelssohn, his virtuosic pedal work owed much to Bach as displayed in this Sunday's postlude.
Next Sunday at 6:00 p.m., folk music from the Celtic and American traditions will be offered with guitarist Bill DeMarco joining.
William Bolcom and William Albright were colleagues in the composition department at the esteemed School of Music, Theatre, and Dance of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their collaborations together produced the ragtime revival of the late 1960's as well as numerous organ works inspired by each composer's artistry. This Sunday morning, we experience a few examples of their eclectic catalogue.
The Gospel Preludes by William Bolcom are a four volume collection of hymns and spirituals set in a gospel, blues, jazz, and even avant-garde manner. They are as spiritually compelling as they are artistic, even strange. For the prelude, the 19th century hymn "Jesus Calls Us; O'er the Tumult" is similar in form to a Baroque chorale prelude (cantus firmus on one manual, accompaniment on another with pedal) but harmonically evokes jazz, blues, and gospel. A gentle setting that beckons the ear to listen deeply to Bolcom's complex chromatic writing.
The title "Carillon-Bombarde" by William Albright refers to the bell peal figure heard throughout the piece in both manual and pedal and the use of the large French reed stop: the Bombarde. Commissioned in 1985 for the re-dedication of the historic Chapman tracker organ at St. Margaret's Church, Straatsburg-on-Hudson, New York, the work is thrilling, almost typical, yet inescapably imbued with Albright's characteristic quirkiness.
The Musical Offering this Sunday is a solace for prayer and reflection in George Frideric Handel's "Andante" from Sonata No. 1 with violinist Harmony Tucker.
This Sunday at 6:00, join us for an eclectic evening worship experience with the musical sounds of gospel, jazz, blues, the Celtic folk tradition, and an ethereal instrumental from the early days of the band Genesis. Guitarist Alan Skowron returns to this newly reinstated evening service.
Morning worship begins with the gentle yet playful strains of the second movement from Organ Sonate II (1937) by Paul Hindemith. Titled "Ruhig bewegt" (peaceful, with movement), the work's construction of elegant contrapuntal lines with 20th century sonorities owes as much to J.S. Bach as to compositional sensibilities of the time. To close the service, we hear Bach's setting of the 17th century German chorale "Wer nur den lieben Gott läst walten" (translated in The New Century Hymnal as "If You But Trust in God to Guide You") from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) composed mostly from 1708-17. Bach employs an anapest (the "joy motif") continually throughout— two short notes followed by a longer note value—to clearly represent the elation of living in the Light.
A moment of peace and tranquility will be found at the Musical Offering in "By Kells Waters" by Kelly Via. Flutist Aaron McGrew plays all the instruments in this flute choir work based on the traditional Celtic folk song.
At the 6:00 p.m. Zoom service, the Celtic sounds carry over into the evening with bassist Peter Strening, cantor Blair Carpenter, and I offering songs from the Ionia Community and Irish rock band U2. Come join us for the return of this intimate and cherished service of evening worship and communion.
A botanical theme of growth. Of life emerging out of seeming death. Coaxed into being by the Spirit.
"Lied to the Flowers" is a poetic song of color and variations for the organ by the aptly named Flor Peeters. It is movement four from his Lied Symphony for organ, a programmatic ode to nature also celebrating the ocean, desert, mountains, and sun. The essence of flowers is suggested with Peeters' specific colored registration and evolving variations on the chant-like flower motif. The Spirit is called to dwell within us in J.S. Bach's glorious setting of "Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist" (Come, God Creator, Holy Ghost.) It is a chorale partita in two parts: the first section presents the cantus firmus in the soprano followed by a repetition in the pedal overlayed with a flowing manual ritornello symbolizing the rushing wind of the Spirit.
This week's musical offering will be the well-known "Meditation" from Thais played by violinist Amy Welsh. Consider it a brief moment of reflection, calm, and inner silence as we virtually worship together this Sunday.
Two selections from Johannes Brahms' Eleven Chorale Preludes will be heard in this Sunday's 11 a.m. streaming service. Composed in 1896, a year before his death, the chorale preludes contain a Baroque sensibility but through the lense of the 19th century. Herzlich tut mich erfreuen ("My Faithful Heart Rejoices") is based on a 16th century hymn encouraging one to act from the heart in service to God. Mein Jesu, der du mich zum Lustspiel ewiglich ("My Jesu, Thou who me to delight forever") is setting of a now extinct German hymn extolling the virtue of serving the Light.
Soprano Blair Carpenter and I will offer our arrangement of the choral anthem "The Lord Is My Light and My Salvation" by Rosephanye Powell. Based on Psalm 27, the text relates the wisdom of trusting in God who can even make the blind see.
Agape love, rebirth, and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit: three concepts intertwined beautifully in this Sunday's reading of John 3.1-17.
The ancient Latin text "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est" (Where charity and love are, there God is) refers to agape love and is traditionally associated with the Washing of Feet rite on Maundy Thursday in Catholic and some Protestant traditions. Contemporary settings of this text include works by Maurice Duruflé, Paul Halley, David Conte, and this Sunday morning's offering by Norweigan composer Ola Gjeilo. The anthem is also another selection from the March 16 Ola Gjeilo concert the Chancel Choir will participate in at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center in New York City. The Gregorian chant melody associated with the text, composed between the 4th and 10th centuries, serves as the pedal cantus firmus in Jeanne Demessieux's beatific setting of the tune during the Prelude.
A Hymn to the Spirit, "Come Down, O Love Divine," commonly associated with the tune Down Ampney, is given a subtle tango inflection by contemporary composer Mark Sedio for the 9:00 a.m. communion time.
To close the morning services, Camil Van Hulse provides an arrangement of the 17th century Lutheran hymn "Upon the Cross Extended" relating the life-giving power of Jesus' ministry summarized in these words from verse 7: "Your cross I place before me; Its saving pow'r restore me."
At the 6:00 p.m. service, cantor Blair Carpenter and ukulelist Stuart Yoshida lead you in songs of the spirit, love, and the wilderness as we continue the Lenten journey.
On this first Sunday of our Lenten observance, two dramatic organ works from the Baroque period will be played. The "Chaconne in E Minor" by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) offers inspired variations over a ground bass. The "Dialogue sur les grands jeux" from Suite du premier ton by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749) completes the morning services on a grand French high Baroque note.
During the 9:00 a.m. communion time, soprano Blair Carpenter sings a solo version of the Stephen Paulus choral anthem "The Road Home." Based on the folk tune "The Lone Wild Bird" from The Southern Harmony Companion of 1835, the text was written by Michael Browne in 2001 and speaks to returning home after being lost in the proverbial wilderness.
At the 11:00 a.m. choral service, the Chancel Choir offers "The Spheres" by Ola Gjeilo. This work is a selection from our March 16 Alice Tully Hall concert in New York City celebrating the music of Ola Gjeilo. It is an a cappella setting of the first movement from Gjeilo's 2008 Sunrise Mass.
At the 6:00 p.m. Dinner Church service, cantor Blair Carpenter and I lead you in songs by Iona Community composer John Bell and songs of wilderness travel.
In this week's reading, Jesus foretells his death.
Music to reflect the gravitas of this revelation to his followers can be found in Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, in an arrangement for organ by William Strickland. Upon the Cross Extended by Camil van Hulse continues the solemn affect as we near Holy Week. The Chancel Choir offers "Trust the Seeds" by Elizabeth Alexander, set to her original poem about nurturing the seeds of faith, entrusting their growth to God.
The Threshold Choir will also join the morning services. They are part of a national movement to offer solace and comfort to those on the threshold of life through song. Their songs of peace and tranquility will be a welcome offering to all of us this Sunday morning.
Each week, Director of Music Mark Heiskanen writes a Music Minute previewing the upcoming Sunday's musical offerings and occasionally opines on other music-related topics.
We are blessed by an engaging music program at Plymouth!
Mark Heiskanen has been Plymouth's Director of Music since September 2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Mark has experience and great interest in a diverse range of musical styles including jazz, rock, musical theatre, and gospel. He is thrilled to serve a congregation and staff that values diversity and inclusion in all facets of life.