The Power of Hymns

Hymns are the workhorses of the liturgy. Hymnwriters use poetry to teach us, to reinforce our current understandings, and to show us new ways of looking at God and the world. Through them we confess, we praise, we mourn, we rejoice. They also help to define who we are amid the unity of Christ’s body; hymns are a tool that help to convey a denomination’s doctrine. This has always been the case: Methodists are proud to claim Charles Wesley’s hymns as their own; Anglicans and Episcopalians claim John Mason Neale and the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter; and Congregationalists claim Isaac Watts, etc. This is especially true in the Lutheran Church: Martin Luther himself was a hymnwriter and composer of hymn tunes. Following his lead, many others composed hymns that professed the Lutheran understandings of Grace and scripture. 

On Friday, October 26, we commemorate Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), Johann Heermann (1585–1647),  and Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676). These three outstanding hymnwriters all worked in Germany during times of war and plague.  When Philipp Nicolai was a pastor in Westphalia, the plague killed thirteen hundred of his parishioners.  One hundred seventy people died in one week.  His hymns, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright,” were included in a series of meditations he wrote to comfort his parishioners during the plague.

The style of Johann Heermann’s hymns moved away from the more objective style of Reformation hymnody toward expressing the emotions of faith.  Among his hymns is the plaintive and confessional text, “Ah, Holy Jesus”.

Paul Gerhardt lost a preaching position at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin because he refused to sign a document stating he would not make theological arguments in his sermons.  The author of beloved hymns such as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”, some have called Gerhardt the greatest of Lutheran hymnwriters.

Each week, the hymns that we sing in church, as well as the choir’s anthem and the organ voluntaries, all reflect the Gospel reading for the day and provide new or alternative ways of understanding, seeing, and experiencing Christ. Through them, we are made better Christians and are connected with all the saints who forever sing of God’s grace and majesty. Therefore, it is incredibly important to remember John Wesley’s instructions for singing: Sing lustily and with a good courage, but above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Wesley’s complete instructions can be found here

In the celebration of music – an offering from Ryan

July 28th marks the day that the ELCA commemorates three German composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel, and Heinrich Schütz.

J. S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685 into a family of musicians. As a youngster he studied violin and organ and served as a choirboy at the parish church. By early adulthood, Bach had already achieved an enviable reputation as a composer and performer.
His assignments as a church musician began in 1707 and a year later he became the organist and chamber musician for the court of the Duke of Weimar. In 1723, Bach was appointed cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig and parish musician at both St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, where he remained until his death in 1750. A man of deep Lutheran faith, Bach’s music was an expression of his religious convictions.

George Frederic Handel was also born in 1685, in Halle, Germany. After studying law, he became organist at the Reformed Cathedral in Halle in 1702, and in 1703 he went to Hamburg to study and compose opera. His interest in opera led him to Italy and then on to England where he became a citizen in 1726. Once in England, Handel supported himself with court appointments and private patronage. His energies were devoted to producing Italian operas and English oratorios, large choral works based upon religious themes. Handel’s most popular work, Messiah, was first performed in Dublin in 1741, and is notable for its powerful musical interpretation of texts from the Holy Scriptures. A man of great charity and generosity, Handel died in London in 1759 and was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Heinrich Schütz was born in Köstritz in 1585 and, like Bach, was a choirboy in his youth, and, like Handel, studied law as a young man. After studying with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, Schütz moved to Kassel to work as an organist and then to Dresden as court composer to the Elector of Saxony, where he quickly became the leading figure in 17th-century German music. Schütz is best remembered for successfully using Italian influences in the development of the German musical tradition. Almost all of his known works are vocal settings of sacred texts.

Musical selections:
“Zion hört die Wächter singe” from Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 by Johann Sebastian Bach: One of Bach’s best-known works, more famously known in his organ arrangement, this is the fourth movement from his cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us).  This text and the main melody are usually sung (and Bach’s organ arrangement usually played) on one of the first Sundays in Advent each year.

“We praise Thee, O God” from The Dettingen Te Deum by George Frideric Handel: The opening movement of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, which is a setting of an ancient hymn that he wrote to celebrate King George II’s victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen in 1742.  This was the last time a British monarch led an army in battle; the music opens with a military march-like rhythm played on the strings and the drums.

“Der Herr ist mein Hirt” from Symphoniae sacrae III, Op. 12, No. 1 by Heinrich Schütz: This setting of Psalm 23 (which we read last Sunday) was composed for Schütz’s 1650 collection of works known as the Symphoniae Sacrae III, which is made up of sacred vocal works written shortly after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, and serves as a celebration of the return to peace.

Organ Update

Good news from the organ loft! The decision has been made and construction is in progress! That’s right: St. Paul’s own virtual organ is currently being built at Magnus’ shop in Sulechów, Poland. We are hoping that it will be finished and ready to ship to us by October 1st, and should be installed before Thanksgiving!

I’d like to thank all of you for your continued support and interest during this process. A special thanks to Church Council members for helping to make that decision and making sure all of our “t”s were crossed and “i”s dotted! It has been a long search process, and I’m confident that we made the right decision.

There will be a big dedication recital/service/event sometime in the Fall, so keep watch for that announcement. I’ll continue to announce updates on construction and installation progress as well. 

Musically yours,
Ryan Patten, Music Director

Singing the Lord's Song during Lent

It is Lent: a perfect time for self-reflection and to remind ourselves why we do what we do routinely, or ritually.  Vicar Andrew’s Adult Forum Lenten series on worship and liturgy will do just this, and I encourage everyone to come.  This week, I’d like to take some time to think about the Psalms and their place in worship as we prepare to try some new things.

Have you ever noticed that in worship we always hear a portion of the book of Psalms (even though the other readings come from a much larger selection of books from the Bible)?  Also known as the Psalter, the book of Psalms is a collection of liturgical poetry and has been sung by Jewish people throughout their long history.  These texts were written with music in mind and were meant to be sung, so it’s probably better to think of the Psalter as a hymnal rather than a book of the Bible.  The Psalms have been in continual use from their inception until today, so when we sing the Psalms we are joining our assembly with the praises of God’s people from ancient Israel, with Jesus himself and his disciples, and all Christians throughout the past two millennia.

Throughout the ages, there have developed many different methods for singing or chanting the Psalms.  What we are accustomed to at St. Paul is a simplified version of the plainsong technique, which has been in use since Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.  This is the technique that medieval monks would have known as they made their rounds chanting the entire Psalter in the course of a single week at their eight daily worship services.  It is a bit more complicated that what we are familiar with, though I do hope to introduce it in the future.  The choir is looking forward to singing a plainsong psalm at the Maundy Thursday liturgy.

The rise of the congregational hymn after the Reformation in the 16th-century led naturally to metrical psalms, which are usually rhyming hymns that are based on a psalm text.  A perfect example is “All People That on Earth do Dwell”, a versification of Psalm 100 (#883 in our hymnal) for the 1561 publication of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.  In England, the plainsong technique became harmonized for singing by a four-part choir and became Anglican chant, a technique that is still widely used today in many Christian denominations.

Starting on Sunday, we’ll be using a simplified form of Anglican chant to sing the Psalms, but because these techniques all grew out of plainsong, it will seem very familiar.  There is only one change to be aware of: in the Psalms that we’re used to, we see a line of text broken up with a short vertical line (or “pointing mark”):

I was glad when they | said to me,

“Let us go to the house | of the Lord.”

This tells us to sing everything before the line on the first note, and then one syllable per note after the line.  Starting Sunday, a [bracket] will tell us to move to the second note, and every syllable in the bracket will be sung on that note, and then one note per syllable after.  It sounds complicated, but I’m sure we’ll all catch on very quickly.  For example, when you see this,

I was glad when the [said] to me,

“Let us go to the [house of] the Lord.”  

you’ll know to sing this:                 


The book of Psalms is a particularly rich collection of a variety of expressions: from thankfulness and praise to sorrow and despair. It always contains some fresh new way of looking at the world for me each time I encounter one of its many texts, and it is my hope that in thinking about them and singing them with a new song (see Psalms 96, 98, and 149) they will do the same for you. Many blessings as you begin your Lenten journey.

Ryan Patten
Director of Music

Preludes and Postludes: Why do They Matter?

December 10, 2015
Part of my job as Music Director at St. Paul is to provide a prelude and a postlude each week for Sunday worship. The music I choose for the prelude is generally of a prayerful or contemplative nature and the postlude, while it tends to be more festive, certainly varies depending on the season or the particular Sunday in the church year. I’ve had the privilege over the past couple of years to discuss the role of the prelude and postlude in our worship with our wonderful staff, several colleagues, and many parishioners. For the most part it seems that none of us ever wish to go without the prelude or postlude, but ideas about the role of these musical moments in our worship vary distinctly.

Every set of church staff is different with respect to its beliefs around the purpose of the prelude and postlude, just as each congregation differs with respect to the way that it treats preludes and postludes. Some of my music director friends have been instructed by their supervising pastors to begin the prelude no less than 15 minutes prior to a service while others have been instructed to play no prelude whatsoever. Several churches ask that there be no postlude during Advent or Lent because of the penitential nature of those particular seasons while some enjoy complex and boisterous postludes year-round (and sit attentively through the entirety of each, no matter the length.) I have attended several churches where it is customary to enter the worship space in silence, allowing the prelude to be the only sound that occupies the space, then sit quietly following the service until the completion of the postlude.

Our custom at St. Paul is truly a mixed bag: many of us enter worship in a rather last-minute fashion, greeting our friends and family whole-heartedly with spirit-filled voices while others sit quietly in the pews for several minutes with downcast eyes or hearts lifted in prayer. I would argue that these are both ways to prepare ourselves for worship; they’re just vastly different ways to prepare. Where does the prelude enter each of these scenarios? For some it seems the prelude is background music that fills the space between greetings or provides a backdrop for an extended conversation. For others it fills space in the soul or the mind, maybe quieting the residue from a busy week and making room for the words and music of worship. In many cases, perhaps the prelude is worship. 

The postlude, from my perspective, is really an exciting opportunity to lift up a musical offering to God but also an important moment to comment on a theme from the last hour’s worship service or send the congregation out into the world with a message for the coming week. I tend to think carefully about this music and spend quite a lot of time preparing it. It’s always a nice benefit for members of the congregation to share this moment with me!

What is the prelude to you? What about the postlude? How do you make use of these musical moments during worship? During this season of Advent, we are hoping to access some contemplative time in the sanctuary before worship each Sunday. Before the prelude begins, the singing bowl will be rung several times, calling us to reflection and preparation. We hope this is a meaningful change to our routine and perhaps causes us to think more carefully about the time before and after worship each week.

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