My pastor delivered an interesting sermon this past Sunday (23 May 2021) entitled “Recognizing the Passing Seasons of Life.” The sermon pulled from the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 3, explaining that “To everything there is a season” and there is “a time for every purpose under heaven.”
I’ve always loved Ecclesiastes and its central insight that without God, everything is meaningless. The perpetual turning of the seasons—the cycle of birth, preparation, harvest, and death—is similarly meaningless—an endless cycle—without God.
Pastor Monday took a slightly different approach, one that is still very important: we so often abuse, misuse, or waste the time we have. The season of preparation—planning ahead, planting our seeds, tending to them, etc.—is frequently squandered; as a result, the harvest is lacking. We all want the harvest without the preparation, but a harvest that lacks preparation is no harvest at all—or a harvest of dust.
Yesterday marked the first December church service of the year, so I was finally able to whip out some Christmas carols for morning service. My pastor’s personal favorite carol is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” so that was our first congregational singing. But he requested an interesting pick for the second singing: “Away in a Manger.”
“Away in a Manger” is not always top-of-mind for me when it comes to Christmas carols, but it possesses the same sweet simplicity (and triple feel) of “Silent Night.” It’s also very easy to play, which makes it nice to crack open when practice time is short (“Hark!,” by contrast, is a bit more complicated, especially with its profusion of secondary dominants and moving to minor in the last couple of phrases). The melody is very sweet, and easily harmonized in thirds.
This week I’ve been teaching and learning a great deal about George Frideric Handel, the great German composer who became, over his long life, a great British one. In discussing Handel and other Baroque composers with my students, we also veered into the world of hymns.
Hymns were and are important in Protestant congregations as simple, memorable tunes with theologically rich texts. Hymn melodies are often based on folk tunes or popular compositions. In some cases, such as the lovely Christmas carol “Silent Night,” the text is written first, then set to music (indeed, most hymns, being based on Scripture, evolved this way). Sometimes the tune is written, then an enterprising poet sets the text. Such was the case with Isaac Watts, who set his text for “Joy to the World” to a Handel melody. And, of course, there are hymns written and composed by the same person.
In talking about hymns, I brought to my students a slender little hymnal in my small collection of them, The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. From what I can gather, my copy was published in or after 1966, when the copyright from 1938 was renewed. There is a stamp on the inside front cover stating that the hymn book once belonged to Carteret Street Methodist Church, which I thought was in Charleston, but appears to be in Beaufort, South Carolina. The hymnal includes 296 hymns, with fifty responsive readings—a good collection, but slim by the standards of a pewback hymnal.
So as I was going through posts from October 2019, I stumbled upon one of my old favorites: “The Joy of Hymnals.” My small church roped me into playing piano for Sunday morning services maybe two years ago, and it quickly rekindled an old love of hymns and hymnals.
Hymnals are my favorite items to find in old second-hand shops and antique stores (the latter of which often selling them at an egregious markup). It’s fun to see which hymns do—and, more importantly, don’t—show up in any given hymnal. I particularly like slender volumes, the kind that were meant for carrying from service to service or camp meeting to camp meeting, and which tend to possess hymns from the canon, if such a thing exists, of hymnody.
I even recorded and released a very lo-fi EP, The Lo-Fi Hymnal, which consists of crude recordings of my Sunday morning playing. That short collection also includes a PDF version of today’s TBT feature.
Christmas puts me in a musical mood. For one, I’m somewhat contractually-obligated to put on a Christmas concert, which will consume most of my free time this week, so I’d better embrace the Christmas spirit—or else. But it’s not hard to get excited about the iconic music of the season.
(Also, Milo Yiannopoulos—the actual Milo—shared my post about his views on Romantic music, which helped make it the most trafficked post of the year so far. That was incredibly gracious of him to do, and it’s further boosted my excitement for playing and writing about music.)
As I wrote in an earlier blog post on hymnals, I’ve gradually taken over piano playing at my little Free Will Baptist church. We sing many of the traditional hymns that were written and popularized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as some earlier selections. Shape-note hymns are often hard to play, with big intervalic leaps in the melodies and surprisingly complex harmonies.
Take that melodic variety and harmonic complexity and multiply it by a factor of ten, and you’ve got Christmas carols.
Continuing with yesterday’s churchy theme, today’s post deals with a sermon my pastor gave Sunday morning. Pastor Monday (yep, that’s his name) gave an interesting sermon on one of my favorite books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a unique book in that it is a philosophical treatise. That’s not to say the rest of the Bible is devoid of philosophy—far from it—but King Solomon’s goal in Ecclesiastes is to find the meaning of life from reason and experience, eschewing the supernatural.
I recently started playing piano for Wednesday night and some Sunday services at my little Free Will Baptist Church. My church has about thirty or forty attendees on a good Sunday morning, so it’s slim pickings for pianists.
The little old lady who had been playing is very feeble, and she managed to miss more accidentals than a seventh-grade clarinet player due to her failing hearing and eyesight. As such, she was eager to pass off the monkey’s paw of church piano playing to someone else.
As such, I’ve gradually improved my sightreading. More importantly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some wonderful old hymns—and to learn some for the first time.