Music Notes for August 14, 2022

Hym of the Day: “Thy Strong Word” ELW 511
Text: Martin H. Franzmann, 1907–1976
Tune: EBENEZER, Thomas J. Williams, 1869–1944; arr. Richard W. Hillert, (1923)

Here we encounter a prophetic response to the word of God by Martin Franzmann. This hymn is not about God's word as gentle living rain or tender love, but about the aspects of the word of God that cleave the darkness, break the light of salvation, bespeak us righteous, break forth wisdom from the cross, and explode into alleluia. It was written in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, at the request of Walter Buszin, professor of liturgics at the time, who asked for a processional commencement hymn to the tune EBENEZER. Franzmann wrote four stanzas related to light in the seminary's motto, "Anothen to Phos"- "Light from Above." They were first sung at the chapel service on October 7, 1954. 

For commencement the hymn was not long enough, so Franzmann requested to add another stanza and then yet another until the six-stanza version was completed in 1959. It appeared in the Worship Supplement (1969). Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) kept "thy," "thee," and "thine," made the language inclusive (two instances: in 2, "Lo, on men" to "Lo, on those" and in 6, "Men and" to "mortals"), and changed "life-breathing" in stanza 2 to "life- giving." Evangelical Lutheran Worship kept the version from Lutheran Book of Worship but changed "life-giving" back to "life-breathing."

Ralph Vaughan Williams classed EBENEZER with the world's finest one hundred tunes.  Although among the less usual Welsh ones in a minor key, formally it is quite usual: AABA with B moving to the relative major. The triplet is less usual though not unknown to the Welsh. Alan Luff says that "in the Welsh idiom, the triplet is sung heavily and deliberately and there is no great care taken to distinguish between it and the dotted figure elsewhere in the tune.” He also suggests that in Wales this "is a most unsuitable tune for these words. It takes up too much of the 'doubt and sorrow' and not the ‘shining light.'  EBENEZER (also called TON-Y-BOTEL ["tune in a bottle"] because of a story with no foundation that it had been found in a bottle that washed up on the coast of North Wales) was composed by the organist and choirmaster Thomas J. Williams in 1890 or 1896, first for an anthem and then turned into a hymn tune. "At the time the anthem was written Williams was a member of a chapel in Rhos, Pontardawe, called 'Ebenezer.' Thomas John Williams was born in Wales and became an insurance man. He studied music in Cardiff with David Evans, wrote hymn tunes and anthems, and served Zion Church and Calfaria Church in Llanelly as organist and choirmaster. Richard Hillert "prepared the keyboard setting from the harmonization written by the composer." 

Opening Voluntary: “All Praise to God,” Craig Phillips (1961)

Craig Phillips is a distinguished and popular American composer and organist and Director of Music at All Saints’ Church, Beverly Hills. His choral and organ music is heard Sunday by Sunday in churches and cathedrals across the United States, and many of his works have been performed in concert throughout North America, Europe and Asia. He was named the American Guild of Organists Distinguished Composer for 2012 — the seventeenth recipient of this special award. Dr. Phillips joins an illustrious list that includes past honorees Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Daniel Pinkham, Stephen Paulus and David Hurd. 

Closing Voluntary: “Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness,” Healey Willan (1880-1968) 

Healey Willan was an Anglo-Canadian organist and composer, best known for his church music compositions. This quote he used to describe himself suggests he had quite a sense of humor: "English by birth; Canadian by adoption; Irish by extraction; Scotch by absorption." Willan was able to make his livelihood as a composer, an encouraging detail not lost on the young Canadian musicians who followed him.

Today's closing voluntary comes from Willan's three collections of Hymn Preludes, 30 in all, published in 1957. These pieces are based on a well-known hymn or chorale tune.  Full and festive, the basic structure is that of a short introduction followed by the phrases of the tune alternating with interludes and offering a richness of harmonic beauty typical of Willan’s compositions.