Of Dying and of Dawning Days

We welcome Dr. Don Horisberger, 2020 Hopson Lecturer, as feature writer for the March newsletter.

The pandemic has left many church musicians seeking ways to engage choir members and congregations during lockdown.  While some places of worship have resumed in-person singing, at least to some degree, many continue to bring choirs together either virtually or not at all.  And yet, we know that it’s important for choirs and congregations who value singing as integral to their worship to continue in some way.

In a recent presentation for the Association of Church Musicians in Madison, WI, Ken Stancer reported on offering a four-week session on hymns for his congregation.  Ken found that considering the hymn texts as poetry was quite meaningful for the participants.

During the same workshop, I presented Carlton R. Young’s hymn-anthem “Awake, awake to love and work” as especially relevant to these times.  (You may find the anthem in CMI’s Choral Library if you do not know it.)  The anthem is based on the hymn of the same name found in the hymnals of many denominations.

The text for “Awake, awake” is by English Anglican priest and poet Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929).  Following ordination and posts in two parishes, Studdert Kennedy volunteered to serve as an army chaplain as World War I began.  He was known for his compassion and care, going to soldiers in the trenches and on the front line to offer comfort and reassurance, and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery.  Let’s consider “Awake, awake” along with another Studdert Kennedy poem.

The three verses of “Awake, awake” usually found in hymnals are actually the second half of Studdert Kennedy’s six-verse poem “At a Harvest Festival” (from his collection The Unutterable Beauty, published 1927).  All six verses are found in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, but most hymnals include only the final three.  Whenever possible, it is helpful to include the first three in some form, for they set up the “Awake, awake” text in beautiful and important language.

Another of Studdert Kennedy’s better known poems is “Indifference” (from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, published 1918).  The noted American theologian and Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) quoted this poem in an address about the importance of caring and compassion in life -- qualities that seem especially appropriate in these unsettled times.

These two poems offer particularly rich food for discussion, meditation, and prayer in virtual or in-person choir gatherings during Lent and into Easter.  Consider the flow from Crucifixion to Resurrection in the texts:

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.
At a Harvest Festival
Not here for high and holy things
We render thanks to Thee,
But for the common things of earth,
The purple pageantry
Of dawning and of dying days,
The splendour of the sea:
The royal robes of autumn moors,
The golden gates of spring,
The velvet of soft summer nights,
The silver glistering
Of all the million million stars,
The silent song they sing,
Of Faith and Hope and Love undimmed,
Undying still through death,
The Resurrection of the world,
What time there comes the breath
Of dawn that rustles through the trees,
And that clear voice that saith
“Awake, awake to love and work,
The lark is in the sky,
The fields are wet with diamond dew,
The worlds awake to cry
Their blessings on the Lord of Life,
As He goes meekly by.
“Come, let thy voice be one with theirs,
Shout with their shout of praise,
See how the giant sun soars up,
Great Lord of years and days!
So let the Love of Jesus come,
And set thy soul ablaze,
“To give and give, and give again,
What God has given thee,
To spend thy self nor count the cost,
To serve right gloriously
The God who gave all worlds that are,
And all that are to be.”

A sense of why we sing and for whom we sing is especially important in sacred music.  This is true not only in our offering of anthems, but also in the singing of our Psalms and hymns.  If we focus even briefly on the words – the theology, liturgical relevance, or sheer beauty – of a phrase or verse, we empower the singers, aiding their worship sense and helping them to grow spiritually.

In my career of ministry through music, I especially have enjoyed “unpacking” hymns with the young minds of children.  Their insights are astonishing, and their love of delving into various aspects of the hymns we sing is infectious.  In our discussion of the hymn “Not here for high and holy things,” the children themselves noticed the alliteration, and were delighted to observe the many “high and holy” attributes associated with the “common things of earth.”  At least one child later told her parents how “awesome” (a great word in this context) the earth is, citing words of the hymn.  Another child asked “What is ‘glistering’”?  When told it’s basically the same as glittering, he replied, “Glistering sounds more like stars than glittering.  I like it better.”  The image of a “million million stars” silently singing was also a favorite.  Then the question:  “Mr. H, what’s your favorite part?”  To which I replied: “I like all of the images, but especially ‘the purple pageantry of dawning and of dying days.’”  [Slight pause, then the singer smiles.]  “Ooo, I really like that, too.”  The language of mission and service in the second half of the poem can likewise inspire the hearts of adults.  And a journey from “Indifference” to serving “the God who gave all worlds that are, and all that are to be” can change lives.

Once a singer has been engaged in this type of discussion, their sense of what we sing is greatly enriched, and they are equipped to offer music to the glory of God in a deeper, more spiritual way.  What better time than now to begin such contemplations of the words we sing?

Dr. Don Horisberger is recently retired as musician at Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL, and as Associate Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  He lives in the quaint Swiss town of New Glarus, WI.