Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hymn tunes and chapel and Lent, oh my!

Time for an update! It's a busy term with Holy Week thrown in for good measure as we gear up for the final crunch. We were all energized (and exhausted) by our offering of "Jesu Meine Freude" in March, and the pace hasn't slowed since then!

One of our big projects in Church Music Colloquium this term, similar to last term, was to write a research paper on an assigned hymn text, delving into the history of the text itself, the life of the author and poetic and musical considerations. Last term my paper was on translator Catherine Winkworth, and her translation "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee," originally by Georg Neumark. This term, I was assigned living poet and teacher Jean Janzen, who has contributed many beautiful hymn texts inspired by the writings of ancient mystics such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich. Julian's writings inspired the text I was assigned, "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth." The catch with this time around was that we also had to write an original tune for our text, to be sung by the class and critiqued by composer and way-reputable hymnal editor and scholar Carlton R. Young. (People call him Sam. Not me, but – people.)

It was very interesting to learn about (Saskatchewan-born!) Mennonite poet Jean Janzen, and to have a chance to try my hand at hymn-tune writing. The fact that, in researching my paper, I turned to the hymnal companion for the United Methodist Hymnal only to find it was put together by none other than Carlton Young was not at all daunting. (In my classmate Henry's words, "Um, so I didn't realize that homeboy Carlton Young is, like, way legit!" Yes – we are master's students.)

My tune seemed to go over well when we sang through it – it's a natural minor tune in 6/8 with a couple of crunchy chords. I provided a harmonized version, but we also sang it melody-only with an open fifth drone, which also sounded very cool (ahem – if I do say so myself!) Dr. Young's comment was that my hymn was maybe on its way to being more of a hymn-anthem – which is better than "your hymn is on its way to my trash bin."

I was really impressed with everybody's tunes. You could really tell people's musical backgrounds from them – it was very interesting. Especially when Dr. Young would ask "what style were you going for with this tune" and the person would say "oh, no style in particular" when it clearly was in a very specific style. Clearly it's hard to pinpoint your own musical assumptions and leanings!

This was a really great exercise, and a chance for us to sing some of Carlton Young's compositions – a couple of which he was hearing for the first time! That was a pretty big honour. We also sang several of his compositions and a Eucharist setting the next day in a Lenten chapel service. I read scripture at that service, which is a passion, and it was the other MSM's first time to hear me do this. It was the reading where Jesus throws a fit in the Temple. A couple of people told me they liked it, and one of my classmates said "I want to see you act, now! We forget that you have a theatre degree!" Well, maybe there would be a part for a zealot activist in next year's Lessons and Carols service........

I feel really lucky to be here, having these experiences. My classmates are so great and we all challenge each other to keep learning and being better musicians. My friend Chelsea is on the committee for the future new PCUSA hymnal, and is encouraging us to submit our new tunes to the committee. So, watch for my fellow MSMs' names when you get your copy!
P.S.: I did well on the paper.

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