shepherd sounds: Sunday Music: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday Music: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

17 October 2010

It’s interesting to compare what we might do against what God might do in a given situation. Sunday’s parable suggests that a secular judge might answer a widow’s plea – quite apart from whether or not her cause is just – simply because she is wearing him out. By contrast, says Jesus to his disciples, God who is merciful never tires of hearing our prayers. In other words, ‘pray without ceasing’ because God hears and answers all our prayers.

The Introit hymn, ‘Praise to the living God’, affirms this beneficence. Its roots go back to a 14th-century text by Maimonides, which has been replicated in at least two versions (this one and the alternate text ‘The God of Abraham praise’). Sung for centuries in synagogues and in family gatherings on the Sabbath, this Jewish chant was often heard by Christians in England. Ultimately it came to be used in Christian hymnals across all denominational lines. The tune ‘Leoni’, in a minor key, was first used in a Christian setting in the 1780 Sacred Harmony hymnal.

The first Communion hymn places the singer in the role of the woman pleading before the judge: ‘Commit thou all that grieves thee’. One of Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt’s (1607–1656) finest, it appeared in every evangelical hymnal in Germany within a decade of its being written. In the original, the text is an acrostic based on Psalm 37.5: ‘Commit whatever grieves thee, into the gracious hand of him who never leaves thee’.

The tune is from Hans Leo Hassler (1564–1612), first composed as a secular song, but later employed by Gerhardt himself as the tune for another of his hymns, ‘O Sacred head’. J.S. Bach later used this as a chorale in his St Matthew Passion.

The Postcommunion hymn, ‘Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round,’ was written by John Chadwick for his graduating class at Harvard Divinity School in 1864. Would that all seminarians could produce a poem so worthy of speaking through the centuries! ‘We would be one with the hatred of all wrong… one with the grief that trembleth into prayer’, he sings, reminding us again of the widow who pleads her case before the judge.

The tune was composed by Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), a remarkable musician who earned a doctorate in music and served as the organist at Westminster Abbey. He died of a stroke at the age of 41, leaving behind him a surprising legacy of music for viols, organ, and choir.

David Zersen

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