Rock of ages, cleft for me is this Sunday's communion hymn. The text of this hymn, penned by the Anglican priest Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), is a favorite of Christians everywhere. Toplady was a prolific writer of hymns, essays, and other documents, but our iconic communion hymn is by far his most renowned and enduring text. As an aside, Toplady had strong interest in the after-life of animals and wrote in support of their resurrection! This week, as you sing the words of Toplady's hymn, think about the generations before us who were consoled and guided by faith in the "Rock of Ages", Jesus Christ. The overarching concept of salvation by sacrifice and grace are two cornerstones of Christian faith that were greatly prized and affirmed during the Protestant Reformation and thereafter. Simple trust in Christ is outlined with an almost childlike innocence in the three stanzas of this hymn.
Rock of ages, cleft for me has inspired many composers to use its melody, composed by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), in other compositions. Perhaps most notably, Charles Ives (1874-1954) used the tune in the last movement of his Piano Trio of 1911. On Sunday, before we sing the hymn, I will improvise on the organ in the Phrygian mode. To make a long story short, a mode is a type of scale (of which 7 are normally recognized) that descended from the musical scales invented in ancient Greece. Today, only two of the seven modes are used often - the Ionian and Aeolian, also known as the major and minor scales. The ancient Greeks believed that different modes (scales) had different purposes and spiritual properties, but that is a discuss for another time! On Sunday, I hope your communion prayers will be aided by the combination of Rock of ages with the Phrygian mode, as I plan to use both in my improvisation. Sometimes, worship is aided by the unusual and unexpected as it serves to emphasize the great mysteries of our spirituality.
Christopher W. Powell
Organist and Choir Master