This was one of the many dropped topics I found as I’ve been cataloguing the old posts from blogspot. I touched upon it when someone asked me my opinion of which of the contemporary liturgical composers were likely to have musical items survive in church use to the end of the century.
My own experience is part of the opinion I offer. From 1982 to 1988 I was working and/or going to grad school. I had a few temporary gigs as a part-time choir director, but mostly, I played and sang under other directors in ensembles and choirs. I wrote about 200 pieces of liturgical music in those days. None of them are currently in my repertoire, and I don’t think more than a few are still in use by my friends. I’m okay with that.
I wrote music for liturgical needs. Baptismal acclamations and songs for weddings: these pieces were done once then never presented again. A director got tired of the Jesuit tune “Yahweh The Faithful One,” and asked me if I would use the same Scripture and develop a new setting.
I adapted a thought from Psalm 8 for the refrain:
“O Lord our God, O Lord our God, we sing for joy that you have made us your own, your very own.”
1. Do not let fear hang in your heart; come trust in me, your shield and God. On every path, I will guard you through all the journey, I am near.
2. Through barren years and lonely days without a hope, we trust in God. Behold the skies, see the promise of children numerous as the stars.
3. To see the Land, our promised home at exile’s end, what joy we’ll know! You are our God now and always; we are your people, and your own.
The verses were taken from Abram’s call in Genesis, so the “Song of Abraham and Sarah” was conceived. I tried to take a different approach from the Dan Schutte text on the verses. But like the Jesuits, I did not conceive of this piece as congregation through-sung, but music leaders taking the voice of God (verse 1), of Abraham and Sarah (verse 2), and then of the spiritual progeny of Abraham (verse 3).
My director was happy with it. He only considered about 20% of the music I brought him, and I only brought what I thought was my better half. So maybe one in ten made the liturgical playlist. That’s about right for me, I think.
When I began full-time ministry, I had less time for writing what came into my head. I didn’t have directors or couples asking for a setting of Psalm 33 or a replacement for a 70’s oldie. I had a celebration of anointing of the sick. I had a funeral for a priest. I needed music that wasn’t in the catalogue. So I wrote it. I also found myself arranging a lot more music than I was writing–the count on this could be at least 500. Ever have an alto sax play “On Eagles Wings?” I did. If I had a female-heavy choir, I needed SAB versions. I had a great choir who needed something more than the folk harmonies of the SLJ Mass, so I arranged it for SATB plus soprano descant. I could have easily titled this post “Parish Musician as Composer & Arranger.” By the mid-90’s I thought I could do better than David Haas or Richard Proulx, so I harmonized liturgical music the way I wanted to do it.
I may have written another 200 pieces since 1988. I hope I’m getting better, but I don’t have a director culling the wheat from the chaff anymore.
JS Bach was a church musician. Antonio Vivaldi wrote for an orphanage orchestra. Many of the best composers had reasons to write music other than to get it published. Let me offer a contemporary example. I still enjoy David Haas’ early music, what he wrote while he was still in parishes. It might be said it’s not as sophisticated as his later efforts, but it has a certain quality that marks it as parish-used. Same is true of the St Louis Jesuits before 1978.
I think contemporary composers like Martin Willett or M.D. Ridge produce good stuff because they’re in the trenches and they’re writing it for their people to sing. Likewise a lot of composers from religious life, Chrysogonus Waddell or Suzanne Toolan, and even from academia, Steve Warner. They don’t seem to get the level of respect because they don’t shop themselves at conferences and with publishers. But my respect for them is high.
Hearing hundreds of people pray the music I’ve written is a pretty huge thrill. Would more hymns in a hymnal or a cd make it sweeter? Perhaps so.
I’ll pick up on this theme again soon. Meanwhile, any comments out there?