This Sunday is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous posting of his 99 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, considered the beginning of the Reformation. To mark this event, the choir this Sunday will sing the first movement of J. S. Bach’s cantata 80, a setting of Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. In this magnificent piece, Bach takes each phrase of the chorale in turn, weaving contrapuntal lines derived from that phrase of the melody, before finally presenting the melody in long, plain notes in the bass (in our case, the organ pedals). The service will conclude the way Bach’s cantata does, with Bach’s ornate harmonization of the last verse of the hymn. In contrast, the second anthem is a setting of Psalm 146 from the 1565 Scottish psalter, the first complete psalm book and the first music of any kind to be printed in Scotland. While psalms had been part of the musical repertoire of the church for centuries, the Reformation gave them a new role, as the entire congregation (instead of a choir) began to sing the psalms in their own language (not Latin), set as rhymed poetry. While the choir will sing Psalm 146 alone, the congregation as a whole sings Psalm 90, in the paraphrase version of Isaac Watts (Our God, Our Help in Ages Past). The third hymn this week is I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art, a text attributed to John Calvin.
This week the choir sings two anthems — the first, “Kyrie Eleison,” is an arrangement by David Angerman of a song by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Getty, from northern Ireland, and Townend, from England, frequently collaborate in writing modern hymns that have found acceptance in a wide spectrum of churches on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 11:00 service, this song will function as the confession of sin. The second anthem, “Christ has no body but yours,” by Bob Chilcott, was commissioned from the composer directly by Westminster. Chilcott, an English composer who sang with the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, both as a boy and as a university student, and was a member of the King’s Singers for twelve years, completed the anthem in the fall of 2015, and it was premiered at Westminster shortly thereafter.
This week Dana Patek and Megan Sharp sing a couple of duets, “Many in One” by Alice Parker, and “Love will find out the way” by Howard Goodall. This second song is a setting of an anonymous poem found in Thomas Percy’s Reliquies of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Some have thought Percy may have written some of the ballad texts in his collection himself, but in some form this poem was known in the seventeenth century. Parts of it were incorporated into the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro by Pierre de Beaumarchais, and there is also a setting of the poem by Joseph Haydn.
This week the choir sings an anthem by the English composer, John Rutter. Rutter attended school in London with John Tavener, and both began composing in their teens. Rutter is now most well known for writing Christmas carols, the first of which he had published when he was 18. He went on to university at Cambridge and served for several years as director of music at Clare College. His anthem, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace,” sets a text widely thought to be by St. Francis of Assisi. The earliest source of the text, however, is no older than 1912, and the repeated references to the self are uncharacteristic of Francis’s writings. This Sunday the Choristers make their first contribution to a service this fall, singing the anthem “God of Many Names” by Dolores Hruby.
This Sunday is World Communion Sunday, and the service recognizes this with music from all over the world, from Russia to Peru, from South Africa to Norway, from Brazil to Latin America. In addition, the organ prelude and postlude are by Naji Hakim, a Lebanese organist who lives in Paris. The offertory anthem is “Eatnemen Vuelie,” written by Frode Fjellheim, a Norwegian musician of southern Sámi origin. The Sámi are an indigenous ethnic group living in northern Scandinavia, and have faced increasing cultural, political and environmental pressures. Fjellheim’s song is inspired by the yoik tradition, an ancient Sámi style of singing on improvised syllables which was condemned as sinful by Christian missionaries during the nineteenth centuries. In “Eatnemen Vuelie,” the yoik element is combined with the hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” a 17th-century German chorale which by the 19th century had become a folk hymn in Silesia.