More than 50 years ago, at Wheaton College, I took a 2-credit requirement during my sophomore year, just to get it over with – “Music Appreciation 101.” Although I had grown up learning to play the piano and organ, I had been exposed to little more than lesson books and hymnals. (I also listened to rock-n-roll on the radio, and bought a few “Greatest Hits of the 60s” organ books to play for fun.)
“Music Appreciation 101” was intended to broaden my exposure to music of all kinds, but especially classical. For homework, I was required to go to the music library, check out a long-playing record album from an approved list, get permission to use one of the record players with headphones, and sit and listen to the music for an hour or two with no distractions. That was the best study time of my whole college career. There is no way I would have ever listened to Jussi Bjorling, an early 20th century Swedish tenor, sing art songs for an hour, were it not for that required course. I enjoyed that hour so much that I still remember it, 54 years later. I also had to listen to operas, symphonies, concertos… what a way to study!
I thought about that class again yesterday as I thought back on the music I had played for the prelude and postlude in church on Sunday. It was the 7th Sunday of Easter, often celebrated as Ascension Sunday, when Jesus ascended back to heaven. It was also Memorial Day Weekend.
People who have followed my blog for very long or have read any of the books in my “Talking with God through Music” series know that I think a lot about hymns and how both the words and the music of hymns help us communicate with God. As a church organist, I also think about how the prelude and postlude of a church service can help us communicate with God.
One of the ideas I remember discussing back in my Music Appreciation class at Wheaton College was whether or not purely instrumental music, i.e. without any words, could tell a story. Back then, I was pretty skeptical, even though there is a technical term for that kind of music – “program music.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the term as “music intended to suggest a sequence of images or incidents.” Over the years I’ve become a believer that music can tell a story. The subject of the story can be planted in the title of the piece or sometimes in program notes. And then the story itself is told by the expressive music.
The story I wanted to tell in the prelude last Sunday was that as Jesus ascended to heaven, he had been talking with some of his followers. Undoubtedly Jesus must have been very excited about finally returning to heaven after accomplishing his 33-year-long mission on earth. But he also must have felt a little sadness at leaving his friends on earth, although he would be seeing them again sometime. As he looked down on them while he was ascending to heaven, he must have wanted to encourage them to keep the faith.
The easiest way to tell this story in a prelude would be to find a well-known hymn that tells the story of Jesus’ ascension in the lyrics, and to improvise on the musical themes of the hymn, trusting that the words and related images would come to the minds of the listeners as they heard the music. However, I couldn’t think of any well-known hymn about the ascension. As I thought about what to play, I remembered a slim old book of organ arrangements by Virginia Carrington Thomas called “Improvisations on Negro Spirituals (Ethel Smith Music Corp., New York, 1951).
That book includes the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” That well-known spiritual could be used to introduce the idea of going up to heaven, so that’s how I started the prelude, to plant the idea. Then I switched to another arrangement in the book, simply named “Processional.” This piece has two musical themes. The first one is a very joyful syncopated tune that suggests to me Jesus’ excitement and happiness at returning to heaven. The second musical theme is a little more subdued, but still hopeful, although without any syncopation. This theme suggests to me the image of Jesus encouraging his friends to keep the faith. The two themes are woven together, back and forth, for a couple minutes, and then I went back to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to remind listeners that we’re still thinking about going to heaven to be with Jesus.
I don’t know how many people listening to the prelude were aware of the story I was trying to tell through the music, but I trust the music quieted their souls so that they were ready to begin a time of worshiping God.
The message of the postlude wasn’t subtle at all. It was a rousing arrangement of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” by Mary McDonald. Since it was Memorial Day I wanted to play an inspiring postlude that praised God as well as honored our veterans. This was the perfect choice for me to play so that everyone would leave the sanctuary mentally singing:
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
Music is one of the best gifts God has given us. What I learned by taking “Music Appreciation 101” way back in 1968 was another gift – the gift that enabled me to broaden my appreciation of music. Thanks be to God!