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

Thursday, November 26, 2009


We're updating the front page soon, but with Advent upon us I thought it best to go ahead and give everyone a few ideas about how Liturgy Solutions might be helpful to you this season:

For the Musician in Small ParishPerhaps you've got your small choir working on an Advent anthem and are busy preparing a couple of pieces for Christmas Eve. But you'd like to involve your choir in the liturgy when they are scheduled to sing, and perhaps use a soloist for one of the other Sundays in Advent. SO -

Consider Jonathan Kohrs' setting of the first stanza of “Lo, He Comes, with Clouds Descending” for unison/optional 2-part choir and organ as a great way to introduce or reintroduce this hymn to your congregation, using the LSB tune HELMSLEY. The subtle quote of SINE NOMINE (“For All the Saints”) while the choir sings “Thousand, thousand saints attending” is a lot of fun – and meaningful text-painting, even though it is subtle.

Also consider Jeffrey Blersch's psalm refrain for Psalm 25:1-10, appointed for First Sunday in Advent in the Three-Year series this year, but very appropriate for Advent Vespers in any parish. Consider having a flautist play the descant on the repetitions of the refrain. For a Gradual, try “Out of Zion, the Perfection of Beauty” (Psalm 50:2-3a,5), by Phillip Magness, for unison choir (or soloist) and organ. This text is for the One-Year series, but could be used at Matins or Vespers at any Advent series. All four of the Magness Graduals quote the Hymn of the Day, with this one drawing inspiration from “Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding”.

Three-Year Congregation? Try Dawn Sonntag's “Prepare the Way of the Lord”, the Verse of the Day for the Second Sunday in Advent, for Uni/2-part choir and keyboard. This works with piano as well as organ and is enjoyed by children's as well as adult choirs.

For the Musician in a Medium-Sized ParishYour children's choir will love the Sonntag setting of the Verse for Second Sunday in Advent mentioned above, but will also embrace her setting of “Creator of the Stars of Night”, especially with the descant provided for the final stanzas. A great choice for the Office Hymn at Advent Vespers.

Speaking of hymnody, Jonathan Kohrs' setting of stanza 3 of “On Jordan's Bank” (SAB, a cappella) will be very accessible for your adult choir, with the melody given to the men while the Sopranos & Altos sing a creative, text-painting accompaniment. Your adult choir should also consider Stephen Johnson's setting of Psalm 85, “Surely His Salvation Is Near”, appointed for the Third Sunday in Advent in the Three-Year Lectionary but also appropriate in place of an Advent Gradual in the One-Year series or as a psalm in any parish for Advent Matins or Vespers. For the Fourth Sunday in Advent, consider Dawn Sonntag's setting of the Verse of the Day: “Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive”. This could be sung again as a Prelude or “Opening Sentences” to Vespers on Christmas Eve.

Speaking of Christmas Eve, did you know “Savior of the Nations, Come” was originally a Christmas hymn? Whether your sing it for Advent or Christmas, if you have a good balance of men in your choir, they will sparkle on Jonathan Kohrs' setting of the “Manger Stanza” (stanza 7), with the altos, tenors, and basses singing a haunting undulation underneath the intermittent superimposition of a the lyric melody in the soprano. This stanza provides a nice opportunity for a soloist as well as for your soprano section. Baritone soloist instead? Consider Dawn Sonntag's most excellent setting of the Verse for the First Sunday in Advent, “Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates” for baritone soloist, SAB choir, and organ.

For the Musician in a Large Parish - You've got a big program, and multiple services each week, and so you know that the recommendations for Small Parish provide possible “solutions” for your children's choir and soloists. And that setting of stanza 3 of “On Jordan's Bank” by Jonathan Kohrs is a perfect match for your junior high or high school choir. Your regular SATB choir is scheduled to sing several Advent works for Voluntaries, Preludes, and communion distribution this year – but you want to make time for them to contribute to the liturgy as well.

Consider Jeffrey Blersch's SATB refrain for psalm 66:1-12, “You Have Brought Us Out to A Place of Abundance”, for the Second Sunday in Advent or for Advent Vespers. The congregation could join in this refrain or the choir could sing it and then chant the verses of the psalm responsively with the assembly. For the Third Sunday in Advent, consider giving them the Verse of the Day, with Dawn Sonntag's “Behold, I Send a Messenger”. If they are up for a small challenge, give them her setting of stanza 3 of “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People”, a free setting that cloaks the melody yet paints the text well.

For Graduals, consider Stephen Johnson's setting of the Gradual for the Second Sunday in Advent, “Out of Zion”, and Phillip Magness' short motet on Psalm 25:4, “Make Me to Know Your Ways, O Lord.” Finally, don't finish your planning until you've reviewed both options we have for stanza 3 of GABRIEL'S MESSAGE. For either the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Advent Matins or Vespers focusing on the Annunciation, or for Lessons & Carols, we've got two great picks here. The option by Jeffrey Blersch is more traditional, yet with fresh and compelling harmonies. Dawn Sonntag's setting includes a soprano solo and either a flute or violin obbligato.


Whether you are looking for a simple way to chant the Introits or for fresh settings of hymn stanzas that will motivate your choir and enrich your congregation's meditation, we humbly offer these many and various “solutions” for your choirs that they may magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior by magnifying the Word His Spirit gives us to sing in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Magness interviewed by Scripps-Howard

Our recent post about the use of the organ in Divine Worship shows how we at Liturgy Solutions view the use of instruments in the service of the Gospel. We have shown that we value traditional worship ideals as integral and seek to build upon them, but we also understand that worship can be fresh and unencumbered by tradition for tradition's sake. We believe in using the full palate of color and qualities that many instruments have to offer. We believe that any instrument can serve our hymn corpus and that congregations should be resourceful at all times, especially when challenged by the absence of regular organist serving their parishes. But we also are very concerned about trends that are taking place in our Synod where the Lutheran musical and worship heritage is being undermined or tossed out altogether. As I said before, our hymns and liturgy are our treasure, and to dismiss them is to dismiss one of the most valuable ways the gospel is communicated to the hearts of our parishioners.

Our own Phillip Magness, was interviewed by the Scripps-Howard News Service last week and really fleshed out what it means for churches to cultivate a confessional and liturgical identity in our worship what happens when that identity is compromised. The link to the interview is below. We welcome your comments.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Luxuriant Lutheranism - the organ on a pedestal

We Lutherans love our organ music, and rightly so. Hearing fine organ playing can be awe-inspiring. Parishes that have fine organs and organists to fully utilize them receive the great rewards that the instrument has to offer. The organ offers a panoply of colors, expressivity, and sensitivity in hymn accompanying, and of course, the great organ music of the Lutheran ├╝berkantor – J. S. Bach. Bach has always been my favorite composer, long predating my years as a Lutheran, extending all the way back to my childhood. The more Bach I hear, the better.

But recently we have encountered some problems in our American Lutheran Churches. There are many, probably even a majority who do not have the kind of organ or organist that would inspire such awe. Many a seminarian, after living in the beauty of the liturgical life at St. Louis or Fort Wayne, and hearing great organists like Henry Gerike, Richard Resch, Kevin Hildebrand and Paul Grime, have left that sublime atmosphere for a more mundane parish existence, where the organist struggles to keep an even tempo and who may have unpredictable, even contrary views on how things should be done. Other parishes, fewer, but still enough to rightly deserve our attention, do not have an organist at all. They have been looking for one, but cannot seem to find one. And the ones they do find are mediocre at best. What to do?

The organ is a great instrument, and it is always wonderful to have a good organist. But if we do not have either, we as Lutherans, may need to rethink our values. What makes Lutheran worship efficacious? Is it the organ, or is it the things that are played on the organ? Is it the chorale preludes of Bach? Or is it the chorales themselves, which place words and melodies on the lips and in the minds and hearts of parishioners for their spiritual nurturing? No chorale prelude can do that.

Is it possible that, without an organ at our disposal, we may need to be resourceful in finding ways to guide the congregation’s song? Perhaps the use of a combination of instruments, or one or two good singers from the congregation can accomplish this goal. Will it be as grandiose, as majestic? Probably not, but will it fulfill the admonition of Colossians 3:16 to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us?” Absolutely!

We Lutherans may be growing fat from the luxuries we have been afforded in this great country where our churches are not persecuted. Our “fatness” manifests itself in that we think it a travesty when we do not to have an organ in our church buildings. So, we have elevated this instrument to "king of instrument” status, placing it on some high pedestal in our worship life. We think the organ to be absolutely essential to our worship – that we cannot possibly worship without it.

But, how important has this instrument been in the history of the Christian faith? St. Paul never even knew of one, let alone the ancient Jews who were given the Psalms and encouraged to sing them. The early church never had one. Yet they sang canticles and hymns just as do we. All through the Medieval period, I understand that organ playing was not in full grand use. The Renaissance composers focused on a pervasively vocal art. No great chorale preludes were being produced at that time. However much the organ was used then, it was not until the Baroque period that we get a truly instrumental art that elevated the organ, through Buxthehude and then Bach (and others, of course). If I am a little inaccurate in my timeline, I think you get my point. Christian worship (and I include the faithful ancient Jews in this, who were saved by Christ's atonement) is 8,000 plus years old. Yet, the organ has played a really significant role for only about the past 400 years, and that’s a charitable estimate.

CPH has come out with a product called The Concordia Organist (TCO). This product provides prerecorded hymn accompaniments on the organ for congregations who do not have a real live organist. You can have an organ playing in your parish even without a person to play it. I view this product as elevating the organ to a level it does not merit. What’s communicated is that, if we do not have an organ, we must use this, because we cannot possibly worship without an organ. It is a symptom of our luxuriant Lutheranism. Well, I have good news. You can live without it! And if you are in this position, it might be a healthy exercise for you to live without it. You have the opportunity to look for the benefits that living without an organ can give! You can start by singing the hymns unison a cappella. One or two singers or a small vocal ensemble can assist the congregation in doing so. As you go, you might add a flute, simple chords on a guitar or a combination of instruments, even a keyboard. You might also begin to sing in parts.

Rather than neglect whatever musical talent lies dormant in your congregations, use them. They are your parishioners too and they need catechesis and pastoral care. Teach them what worship means as they learn to guide the congregation in song. Do not neglect them by employing a “sanctified” manifestation of Karaoke in your parishes. CTO is not altogether different than the canned music that soloists in evangelical protestant churches use to sing contemporary songs so they can sound a little more like Nashville. Think about it:

“You too can sound like the Fort Wayne Chapel! Just buy TCO.”

Is there not just a tinge of theology of glory at work here? Perhaps living life under the cross means, for some, getting over personal aesthetic preferences and considering the notion that unison a cappella singing can serve just as efficaciously in rendering a great hymn or Divine Service setting. But even more, it serves to catechize your congregation just as well, if not better than fancy hymn accompaniments. You do not need to be beholden to some aesthetic ideal that you experienced at seminary or a worship conference, all the while forgetting that the true treasure is in our sung hymns themselves and building a faith community that sings that treasure with great authenticity. Our hymns are an immensely valuable, meaningful, and profound treasure, no matter whether we sing them with an organ or not.

You do not need TCO. Sing your hymns. They are the true treasure. Do it with or without an organ. Use your pianist, your guitarist, your high school flutist, whatever. And when you do not have them, sing a cappella! Putting the organ on a pedestal is nothing more than style over substance. The hymns are our substance and sustenance with or without an organ. They are our true treasure.

Could TCO be helpful to some congregations? Sure. Is it expedient? Sure. But living without an organist and TCO may afford our congregations many hidden benefits as they strive to cultivate their singing voices and utilize other musical resources that may be of great value to their worshiping communities.