Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lamb Of God (Twila Paris)

This weekend I'm putting the finishing touches on a 4-minute piano meditation on Twila Paris' "Lamb of God". I was commissioned to write this by the Wisconsin Synod for their triennial national worship conference this summer. I won't be able to publish this on LS due to copyright restrictions, but NPH or another print house may choose to publish this should the piece be favorably received.

The inclusion of this tune in confessional Lutheran hymnals has generated some controversy because of its roots in the CCM genre. I have not shared those concerns, because I believe that each tune and text should be judged on its own merits, but I do understand them. After all, the mind works by association. (For this reason, I make exception to my "stand on its own merits" policy and don't use AUSTRIA for "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" because of the tune's association with "Deutchland, Deutschland Uber Alles", the Nazi anthem. Maybe it'll be OK for my grandkids to use the that tune, but I chose that tune once and had a Jewish convert and also a woman who grew up in the 40's Germany ask me not to choose it again.) If the song were still "the latest thing" in Christian Pop and had not proven its staying power, I would be more likely to agree with the objection that its use confesses unity with American Evangelicalism. However, the song has been seasoned by time, and the popular culture has moved on, and so we sing this American hymn at Bethany.

But though I have supported LSB 550 because the text is salutary and the tune is beautiful and accessible, I had always wondered if the tune was sturdy enough to support convincing compositional elaboration. The "sturdiness" of our historic chorale tunes is one of the reasons they are still so commendable for the church: they support all sorts of musical treatments. So after I accepted this commission, I mused extensively on the tune itself, seeking to separate it from all "poppy" accompaniment associations. I also didn't want to submit a predictable, formulaic piece that may be superficially pleasing but not really say anything.

I'm happy to report that I was able to do some pretty cool things with the tune, thanks to inspiration from the text but also due to some of the qualities of the tune. I used some polytonal techniques to paint "no sin to hide" and some impressionism to highlight "brought me to his side" and "O wash me in His precious blood". I created a mutation of the tune's intervals to accompany "I was so lost", and derived a harmonic progression from the polytonal assertions I made in the first stanza to accompany the Passion stanza, with pianistic flourishes to evoke the mocking and crucifixion. I was able to land all this with recapitulations of several ideas in the third stanza and found resolution in the end for "and to be called a lamb of God." It will take some pianism to pull it off, but is not a technically demanding piece.

I'm so pleased with this piece that I think I'll play it as the Voluntary at the Tenebrae on Good Friday this year at Bethany. I had another piece selected last August, but there is room for adjustment when something unexpected and convincing comes along. And I think the sobriety of my arrangement combined with the familiarity of the tune and text should result in more worshippers actually engaging with the text than usually happens with instrumental music in the church.

At least that's what I hope will happen. We'll see!

3 comments:

Dave Lambert said...

I can understand why some Confessional Lutherans might be concerned with using a song by Paris. But, there are times when a CCM composer/singer gets it right.

Pastor Johann Caauwe said...

I'll look forward to hearing it this summer.

Stan Slonkosky said...

I think the tune of Lamb of God is kind of catchy, but I think the text of this stanza is problematic:

Your only Son, no sin to hide,
But You have sent Him from Your side
To walk upon this guilty sod,
And to become the Lamb of God.


Since Jesus always was the Lamb of God, why does it say "become the Lamb of God?"

It's not horrible otherwise, but I don't think it should have been included in the LSB. It made Pr. Stuckwisch's list of hymns that should have been left out in order leave room for better stuff. It was one of those that was stuck into the LSB at the last minute without time for the entire LCMS to comment on it.

It's also not as bad as Lift Every Voice and Sing, which mentions a god (the god of American civil religion, apparently), but was written by an atheist! See http://friendlyatheist.com/2007/10/09/interview-with-mike-estes .

See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGWsqR6UbGk to see Jesse Jackson introducing it as The Black National Anthem. I've got no problem with it being used as that, but I do not think it belongs in a Lutheran hymnal.

--

The tune Austrian Hymn by Franz Josef Haydn was used for the German national anthem, Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber alles, which was written to promote the unity of the various German states. Unification took place in 1871.

That tune is still used today for the German national anthem, although only the third stanza, Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit (Unity and Right and Freedom), is used. Maybe the situation is different in the Midwest, but I don't know of anybody in California who has a problem with the German national anthem (or even thinks about it much) or with the tune, though I suppose you can always find people everywhere who make it a practice of finding something to be offended about.

The real Nazi anthem was the Horst Wessel Lied. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnGAgS8GzYg .