Both our processional and sequence hymns are old favorites that come from the opus of Lowell Mason (1792-1872). While Mason didn’t actually write the melodies of these tunes, he composed the harmony and contributed greatly to their popularity. O for a thousand tongues to sing, known affectionately as “Old Number One” in some Methodist circles, opens our celebration this week. The tune, Axmon, originally written by Carl Gotthilf Gläser (1784-1829), and the text by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) have become staple hymns of the American protestant repertoire. However, as is sometimes the case, the arranger of this tune wins the greatest fame. Lowell Mason was one of the most influential American church musicians who ever lived. He was a music educator who helped instigate musical education in American public schools as well as the music director at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. From this highly visible position, he reformed church music in the U. S. Inspired by the venerable tradition of congregational singing in Germany, Mason brought this tradition to America in a big way. Not only did he advocate a singing congregation accompanied by the organ, but he also composed and arranged over 1,600 hymns. When you stand and sing on Sunday morning, think of Lowell Mason! You may be inspired to feel thanks for his tremendous gift to corporate worship. Whether you love singing or not, you have Mason to thank for its permeation of our liturgical culture. Before Mason, many wealthier churches employed numerous professional musicians and singers to sing complex works during services, but after him, most of these orchestras and professional choirs were disbanded in favor of congregational music. While he was perhaps an extremist in his ardor for congregational song, he did bring us the great gift of universal participation regardless of musical ability. Many voices now sing as one, high and low, rich and poor, and everyone joins together in song throughout the churches of America. A thousand tongues, indeed! Of course, history has shown us that there is an important place for professional church music making, and the presentation of complex works with numerous musicians does aid meditation and worship. It is good that we now have a more balanced approach in our musical concept of worship. Our sequence hymn, O bless the Lord, my soul!, is another hymn harmonized by Mason. As we sing these hymns on Sunday, please join us in praising God with full and cheerful voices. As an aside, Mason is even responsible for composing the tune for Mary Had a Little Lamb.
Our choir anthem during the offertory will be a setting of the First Song of Isaiah by the modern composer, Jack Noble White (b. 1938). A local musician here in Mobile for years, White was organist/choirmaster and headmaster of the school at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. White’s setting of this canticle is a favorite of choirs and congregations all over the country, but especially here in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Interestingly, this piece was penned in Mobile in 1976 for a group known as the “CALABAMAHAMIANS”, young musicians from California, Nevada, Alabama, and the Bahamas who were having a conference at Camp Beckwith near Mobile. In White’s own words, “Regardless of how extravagantly or how simply done, The First Song of Isaiah should present a calmly joyful message.” Currently, Jack Noble White is the producing director for the Dorothy Shaw Bell Choir in Fort Worth, Texas.
In closing, our organ prelude and postlude are worthy of note as they represent a very unique style of music from an interesting school of organ playing. It should be noted that when organists refer to a school of organ playing, they often refer to a style rather than a literal school. Our prelude and postlude were both written by Pierre Du Mage (1674-1751). Du Mage had a fairly successful career as organist of the Saint-Quentin collegiate church and the Cathedral of Laon (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon) in France. Du Mage reportedly had a difficult relationship with the Cathedral chapter in Laon and resigned after nine years in the desirable post. Sadly, Du Mage left us with only one book of music, his Livre d’Orgue composed for the chapter of Saint-Quentin. Du Mage reportedly wrote second Livre d’Orgue for the chapter of the Laon Cathedral, but it has since been lost. A “Livre d’Orgue”, or “Book of the Organ” is part of a practice extant since the earliest days of French organ composition. In France, there has always been a tradition of improvising the organ music for the church service. Since the earliest days, organists would make up music on the spot during Mass. However, the best organists would write down pieces containing and representing their finest techniques in “Books of the Organ” so that they could be performed by organ students and organists of lesser improvisational ability. This tradition has helped to give us insight into the styles and forms of these organists in a unique way. Each book, in a way, crystallizes the composer’s musical essence. French organists still occasionally write “Books of the Organ” even today. Du Mage’s works on Sunday will give us insight into the music he must have improvised for countless Masses over the course of his career. This is also exciting on a spiritual level, as these pieces portray both the intimacy and grandeur of our communion with God and neighbor.