“When in doubt, leave it out.” That was the advice of the soloist for the funeral last week. She teaches music at some college in Minnesota. I took her advice to heart.
For her solo, Mendelssohn’s “O Rest in the Lord,” I learned the piano accompaniment just fine, and I didn’t need to leave anything out.
But I was glad to wholeheartedly heed her advice for the violin solo, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The violinist almost always had the melody, so I took the liberty of leaving out lots of the extra notes I was supposed to play on the piano. I figured it was better to keep up with him than to slow us both down by trying to stretch my short fingers into awkward contortions just to plunk out all the “right” notes. I always played at least one note with him, just not all the notes on the page. We started and ended together, and in between, I supported the melody with enough notes that the piece still sounded like Bach.
I used the same principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – for selecting pre-service music for the funeral.
The day before the funeral, I went to the nursing home chapel to acquaint myself with the pipe organ. It was a small tracker organ, apparently modeled after the organ Martin Luther himself played. It had two manuals and a standard pedal board. It had vertical rows of three stops for each manual, one pedal stop, and three couplers. It looked like a nice little organ that would be fun to play.
Except for one thing, which I discovered when I climbed up on the bench to start playing. There was no expression pedal. That wouldn’t seem like a major omission, but for me, it was. I’m short. When I stand up straight, I’m almost five feet tall. When I sit perched on an organ bench with my feet dangling, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. To keep my balance, I rest my right foot on the expression pedal whenever I’m not using that foot to play a pedal on the pedal board. With no expression pedal, I had no foot rest to help me keep my balance. I had to try to sit very still. Even reaching to the far right or the far left with my right or left hand to pull out a stop threatened my equilibrium.
That made it easy for me to make a decision about what kind of music to play for the prelude and postlude. I wasn’t about to challenge myself with any fancy arrangements or classical music that would put me at risk of losing my balance and falling off the bench. I quickly decided to go with a selection of hymns. I asked the violinist (the grandson of the deceased) about Hazel’s ethnic and religious background to try to identify what types of hymns might have been some of her favorites, as well as the favorites of the people who would be at the funeral. Since she was Swedish, I started with “Children of the Heavenly Father” and played for about 15 minutes, progressing through a dozen hymns, ending with “Beautiful Savior.”
As I was selecting the hymns to include in my sequence, I tried to line up hymns in related keys so that there would be a natural progression to each hymn. As I was looking for a classic hymn in the key of G, I came across “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” First I included it, but then I took it out because I thought it might sound too “joyful” for a funeral. I followed the principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – so I removed it from the sequence. If I were selecting the hymns today, I would make a different decision. As part of my daily devotional reading this year I’m going through a new hymnal, mentally singing one or two hymns each morning. Today my hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The words of the first verse are:
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.
How appropriate those words are for a funeral!
For the postlude I played “Go, My Children, with My Blessing” and a confident, fancy (but NO PEDAL) arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” – something I often play for funeral postludes.
Despite the challenges for me in playing for the funeral last week, I guess I can take out the word “misfit” from my role as funeral organist. I need to thank the soloist for giving me the license to “When in doubt, leave it out.”
Even with simplifications, God’s gift of music always gives comfort.
And since I didn’t fall off the organ bench, I still really like to play for funerals. But I definitely prefer organs with a foot rest – like Messiah’s. Or, a nice piano.