Does anything say “white male” more perfectly and ironically than a choral setting of the Magnificat?
This question popped into my head as I was practicing for the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church Love Feast service last night. Nearly all settings I know of this text, these words uttered by a young Middle Eastern woman, were composed by white male composers, and I associate their performance with the marvelous choirs of men and boys in the U.S. and England. So, as I rehearsed David Hurd’s setting of the Magnificat, I felt a wave of gratitude. In that moment, knowing that the music that the diverse GPPC congregation sings and hears is my responsibility, it mattered more than I ever thought it would that Hurd is an African American composer. At a time when prejudice is masked as caution, and hate is proclaimed as safety, Hurd’s setting of “proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight” rings like a challenge, and “to children’s children” seems to embrace all of the diversity of humanity with a courage that we need to emulate.
When I set out to put together music for the lessons and carols portion of the Love Feast, I felt pretty comfortable with the idea of a service that features music from African, African America, and Caribbean traditions. More than any other service I’ve planned, this one took on a life of its own. I chose André Thomas’ setting of the Spiritual, “Keep Your Lamps”, a favorite of choirs everywhere. While researching the origin of this Spiritual, I stumbled upon the story of John Rankin and the Underground Railroad; after we hear a bit about Rankin in the service, “Keep Your Lamps” becomes deadly serious.
Isaiah’s familiar prophecy is exhilarating and fun when sung to a familiar tune by Handel, but it takes on whole new meaning (and level of difficulty) when sung in the Luo dialect from Kenya in “Nyathi Onyuol.”
While perusing Charlemae Hill Rollins’ Christmas Gif’, I immediately fell in love with Aquah Laluah’s poem, “Nativity”; to hear it on Sunday evening is to hear the whole nativity narrative in a new way, offering us a glimpse of a Sierra Leonean perspective on the story. “…women brought their love so wise, and kissed their motherhood into his mother’s eyes.” Is there anything in the world more beautiful than those two lines?
And the surprises continued. “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” seemed like a bit of fun levity until a Guyanese American choir member mentioned that that carol mattered a lot to her. Learning Richard Smallwood’s “Glory and Honor” has made me prefer to hear the words of the Christmas angels as sung by a Gospel choir. How Smallwood captured so much of the emotional content of Christmas in a Gospel ballad is still a mystery to me. And combining the 1 John reading with some words of Martin Luther King, Jr., opened up a pretty incredible dialog between the two texts, and hearing a ten-year-old child practice this reading was about as moving as anything I’ve encountered in a children’s choir rehearsal.
These writers, these composers, these cultures: they will all have a voice at our Love Feast service this Sunday. Honestly, you shouldn’t miss it.
Our Love Feast in the Moravian Tradition (well, sort of) is this Sunday, December 13, 6:30PM at GPPC, 3601 Seminary Avenue. The Moravian part is the serving of buns and cocoa in the pews. Our music director Doug Brown wrote this blog, and we approve of his message.