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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A DVD Resource Worth Its Weight in Gold – Especially if It Weighed More.

Singing the Faith is a rich video documentary about the Lutheran hymn tradition. The premise of the production is to outline the theology and practice of some of the “heaviest hitters,” both composers and poets, in our Lutheran hymn tradition. These figures then stand as examples of clear thinking about how music functions in Divine Worship as well as devotionally in our lives.

Produced by Kantor Richard Resch of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, this video was released under the auspice of the “Good Shepherd Institute,” a conference on liturgy and church music that takes place every November at the Seminary. Featured in this production, and I won’t name them all, are scholars and performers of the highest order. They are “big names” recognized the world over for their prowess in their field. Organists like Martin Jean of Yale; scholars like Robin Leaver of the Juilliard School (formerly of Westminster Choir College); Carl Schalk of Concordia, Chicago; Daniel Zager of the Eastman School of Music and Christopher Boyd Brown of Boston University; and composers like Kevin Hildebrand of Concordia Seminary in Ft. Wayne all present compelling explanations as to how the Lutheran hymn tradition can still be as vibrant and relevant today as it has always been.

The DVD is 80 minutes long and may be viewed as a whole presentation, or in four, 20 minute segments, divided conveniently. There is a handy guide, a booklet for the discussion leader from which they may draw interesting points of discussion. A 40–50 minute class can be easily spent watching one segment of the DVD and then proceed to investigate matters presented in the video by looking at music from the hymnal and considering the questions for discussion.

The segments of the video are arranged historically, early to late, beginning with Luther, his view of music and how it took shape. Robin Leaver provides a fascinating and animated commentary. I guarantee most people will not have heard anything like it. The second segment is about the first post-Reformation hymn writers. Martin Schalling (Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart) is discussed, as is Philip Nicolai and, of course, the great Paul Gerhardt. The third segment deals exclusively with J. S. Bach, his mindset and practice. It features a performance by the Bach Vespers Choir of Trinity Lutheran Church (NYC) singing the Cantata Ein Feste Burg, BWV 80. The final segment deals with hymn poets of our modern time, focusing on Wilhelm Loehe, Martin Franzman, Jeroslav Vajda and Stephen Starke. It shows how earnest hymn writers of the modern Lutheran tradition do not seek to find their way out of the thought process and philosophy of their forbearers. Rather, it shows how they seek to adapt and enliven that philosophy so that modern minds and ears can learn, understand and practice the rich Lutheran musical tradition.

I cannot recommend this resource enough. It is of very high cinematic quality and Richard Resch serves as a most articulate and pastoral narrator. In parishes where the leadership values our Lutheran hymn tradition, this resource will go a long way toward teaching the parishioners what it is and how it can be a great spiritual blessing to us today!

Preview this DVD by viewing a 12 minute trailer at:

Singing the Faith is available through Concordia Publishing House. Item # 99-2260


Phillip Magness said...

I've heard Carl lament of the paucity of American Lutheran congregations that actually sing Lutheran chorales any more - other than a few of the 'hits' like "A Mighty Fortress" and "Now Thank We All Our God". I am thankful to be at a congregation where our Lutheran hymn singing tradition is truly alive - in singing great chorales like "From Depths of Woe" and "A Lamb Alone Bears Willingly" to modern-day contributions to our tradition such as "O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth" and "The Tree of Life".

What are your two favorite lesser-sung historic chorales? And what are your two favorite newer Lutheran hymns?

Stephen R. Johnson said...

I have often said that "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth" may well have been my aha moment where Lutheran hymnody really grabbed me, so that will have to rank among my favorites. I also adore "Oh How Great is Your Compassion." New pieces would have to include the Tree of Life, and I am really taken with "In the Shattered Bliss of Eden." I recently discovered "Christ the Word of God Incarnate," by Steven Mueller. Kind of fell in love with that one too.

I have to say that I am glad that "Entrust Your Days and Burdens" is getting more play. That sounds self-serving since I wrote the current LSB tune. But, in reality, it really needed a face lift. I am sure that there were many other options for a tune that would have well served bringing that text back to people. I am sure it had been out of use for some time.

Orianna Laun said...

Is this a sort of follow-up to the booklet and CD set put out by Resch a few years ago?

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Orianna, Unless Phil remembers that resource, I am not sure which booklet and CD set you are referring to. The DVD resource I discuss here is really unique. You can see a trailer at

Cindy R. said...

Could someone explain to me exactly what a chorale is? Is it just a hymn with a lot of verses? I keep hearing the term but don't know exactly what's meant by it. I'm not a musician - my simplistic categorization of church music is hymns, psalms, and other.

By the way, this DVD sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Yes, a chorale is essentially a hymn with block chords. This makes it distinct from the polyphonic music of the day which utilized independent voices rather than chords. It also was a departure from chanted canticles. Chorales were distinctly Lutheran in their origin as they were hymns that came out of the Reformation. They are strophic, meaning repeated stanzas and often have in common typical formal elements. They were meant to be easy to sing as approachable melodies harmonized by chords. Bach's organ works entitled "Chorale Preludes," are just that. Preludes for the organ based on well-known (in his day at least) Lutheran chorale melodies.

Phillip Magness said...

Good question, Cindy, I would add one clarification to what Stephen said. Yes, the chorales were exactly what he described, and so were the early hymns of the Reformation church. However, to be clear, one should know that they are a SUBSET of hymnody. In other words, all the chorales are hymns - but not all hymns are chorales.

Today, when people refer to the chorales, they usually mean the core hymns ("kernlieder") of the Lutheran faith. It is significant to note that the melodies of these chorales were used not just by Bach, but my many great classical composers. Much organ, chorale, and even orchestral music is written that is based upon these wonderful melodies.

Theologically, the chorales are especially significant for confessional Lutherans, since the texts for the chorales were written in the great days of the Reformation and the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy which followed the Book of Concord. So the chorales are upheld by us because of their wonderful theology first - as well as their sturdy musical construction that serves these texts so well!

Cindy R. said...

Thank you both for your helpful explanations of what a chorale is.

I've ordered both "Singing the Faith" and "Sing the Faith." CPH keeps getting my business based on blog recommendations, from here and from Cyberbrethren.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

I think you will be very pleased with these wonderful products, Cindy. They are rich resources that I know you will appreciate!

Papa Olson said...

Why are the pictures of you guys in black and white?

Cindy R. said...

I finally watched the DVD. Wonderful! It's highly educational. Most of we laypeople know only bits and pieces about our musical heritage, and this provides a fuller explanation and history of Lutheran music. I appreciated that they used more than just snippets of popular hymns and included congregational singing of multiple verses of important hymns. They pointed out both the elegant poetic style and the profound theological substance of these hymns. Also, the images from several beautiful church buildings was impressive. Truly a feast for the ears and eyes and mind!

One of the most memorable points for me was the explanation of Lutheran hymnody as proclamation of the faith. Other church bodies see singing in church as a work we do to please God, or as a way for us to experience God subjectively. Instead of focusing on our efforts toward God or on our feelings about him, we Lutherans proclaim the law and gospel, and the doctrine and comfort that God has revealed to us. As we sing hymn texts that are clear expositions of Scripture, we glorify God and feel his presence by letting him speak through us to proclaim who he is and what he has done.