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Over the week-end I had the privilege of leading a 30 voice choir in a performance for a church conference. We sang John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth, Mack Wilberg’s Come Thou Fount, and Mendelssohn’s I Waited For the Lord. Garrison Keillor, who I generally wouldn’t quote but who has a point, says that singing in a choir is better than sex and almost as good as fresh-picked sweet corn. I don’t entirely agree with that order, but singing is pretty high up there.
Directing a choir is like singing with one on steroids. Your instrument is your choir. Your job is to act or even dance the music in a way that the singers can follow using your hands, your face, your body. This is deeply satisfying because the emotional range of the human voice in concert is infinite. In my mind there is nothing so joyous as worship through music, and when you direct a choir, you have that joy at your fingertips.
Highlights of my life include evensong in Westminster Abbey, King’s College Cambridge, New College, Oxford and numerous English Cathedrals. Listening to music soar through those majestic, ancient, acoustically alive, artistically conceived and rendered Cathedrals that are tributes to God is as close to heaven as it gets in this life, short of Christmas eve caroling with the family, my all-time favorite yearly moment in life.
Preparing a choir is a process. We spent about 5 hours preparing the three songs, starting with sectionals and pounding notes. We clapped some rhythms, which are especially tricky in the Rutter, then worked on sections one at a time, pencils in hand, as we got our notes, dynamics, enunciation, emphasis and a hundred other little details down.
When performance time arrives, there are thirty faces staring intently at me, all concentrating on the music, the sheer beauty and joy of the music. We begin the Rutter with flowing arpeggiated eighth notes from the piano. Then the ladies’ voices soar with the sweetest melody, For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies. The men join in the second verse, and from then on, the interplay of low and high voices is intricate, dance-like, and full of the happiness of a beautiful day in this amazing world God has created, distilled into a four minute song.
Mendelssohn, a master of weaving voices together contrapuntally, combines two soloists and with a back-up chorus to convey with a lovely, lovely melody the message, I waited for the Lord, he inclined unto me, He heard my complaint, he heard my complaint. Oh, blessed are they who hope and trust in the Lord. Look it up on you tube. It is sublime.
Wilberg’s Come Thou Fount also begins with ladies singing the stately traditional melody slowly and in unison, Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. Then altos enter with a low and surprising harmony, almost a counter-melody. The organ plays a glorious, verse-long solo, then the men sing together, Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come, And I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home. Th song ends with eight parts at full volume declaring, pleading,
Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be,
Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering soul to thee,
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love,
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
And there I stand, in the middle of all this beauty, conveying the music to the singers, whose faces reflect and return my deep concentration as they communicate with each other and me, I with them and all of us with the intently listening audience, who have joined together with us in worship.
Of all the joys in this life, this one is the top of Everest.
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real, though far off hymn
That hails the new creation,
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging,
It sounds an echo in my soul,
How can I keep from singing?