These beautiful words, set to music by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), have been sung at countless services in the Church of England. Thou Knowest, Lord was composed for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695. Short thereafter, Purcell himself died and the piece was sung again at his funeral service. A great composer of instrumental, opera, and church music, Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. We hear one of the final works by a great musician when we listen to this anthem. The simple sincerity of this piece creates an atmosphere of total sincerity as it is music written free of ornamentation or excess. Each chord and melody is designed perfectly to express the text drawn from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This anthem also ties into our readings this week.
In Sunday’s readings we hear stories of consequences. We are reminded that our actions directly affect the future. We are also reminded that sometimes our faith is a challenge – it calls us to a higher way. At the offertory, when the choir sings Thou Knowest, Lord, we are directly asking God to spare us from those things that would hurt us, just like the Israelites do in the first reading. We are asking God to look on our hearts and spare us from turning away from our faith, our God, our neighbors, and the best parts of our humanity.
The organ prelude on Sunday also is a piece that implores the mercy of God. Attende Domine is a paraphrase of a Gregorian Chant of the same name. The text asks for redemption and protection. The composer of the organ setting, Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968), was one of the foremost organ virtuosos of the 20th century. A student of Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), Demessieux made great impressions touring the United States as a concert organist. In fact, Dupré himself said that she was one of the greatest organists who had ever lived. In 1962, Demessieux was appointed head organist of the Church of the Madeline in Paris, a prestigious position. Sadly, she died only six years later, and on her death bed, she said she could hear the flutes of the organ in the Church of the Madeline. Unique among organists of her time, Demessieux was one of the first recognized and renowned woman organ virtuosos. Her music has an advanced harmonic language that sometimes stretches the ear. However, she does this in a way that creates a beautiful tone painting of her subject. In a way, Demessieux’s music has a spirit similar to that of Purcell’s anthem.
During communion, Gary Kohler and Katie Powell will sing my own new setting of the African-American spiritual, Deep River. As a piece that expresses a deep longing after heaven, Deep River has come into the mainstream of church music. In my setting of the piece, I have tried to depict the intense longing for God, for heaven, inherent in the original version, in a vivid light. While the melody is traded between the baritone and soprano parts, you may notice that the soprano part, in particular, has a very expressive character that weaves around and above the melody. The baritone part expresses the text and the humanity of the piece while the soprano part, sung mostly on an “Ooo” vowel, is designed to capture the feelings of the soul. In this way, two singers come together to express one feeling.
This Sunday, we have a variety of music from several different sources, time periods, and people. All of this music is drawn together by common themes: a plea for mercy, safely, pardon, and love. As we think about the consequences of our spiritual actions, let us come together in song asking God to spare and comfort us throughout our lives and to keep us strong in faith and love. “Suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from Thee. Amen.”