Friday, February 12, 2010

On Deep-Toned Organ Blasts (etc.)

In search of a Friday-afternoon spiritual pick-me-up (and a little nostalgia, perhaps), I am sometimes wont to sit down at the organ console and play/sing  through selections from the Hymnal 1940, of blessed memory. I try not to just brush by hymns I’m not familiar with (which is the very definition of obscurity), but, rather, to attend to them in an attitude of receptive prayer.

Hymn 283 is one such. The tune is a Bach chorale that carries the appellation Steadfast, but it was certainly once linked to a German text and had another name. Like all of Bach’s work in this genre, it is a gem, but the dynamic interplay between folk art and fine art in the German chorale from Luther to Bach is probably the subject of one more doctoral dissertation I will have never written. So I will say no more on that here.

The text is from 1925, by one Edward Grubb, who, by the definition above, is officially obscure. It is from the “General Hymns” section, and, like many from that section and (especially) from that era, it is all about “God,” about which there is assuredly nothing wrong, but it is short on the Paschal Mystery (never really gets around to it, actually), which, all else being equal, I find a trifle annoying. The gospel is too often unwittingly reduced to mere ethical theism (especially among us crytpo-Pelagian Anglicans), with no use for the second or third Persons of the Trinity.

My approval, however, can be bought, and, since I am a fan of fine church organs of all sorts, he pulled just the right stop with these line from the third verse:

All beauty speaks of thee: The mountains and the rivers, The line of lifted sea, Where spreading moonlight quivers, The deep-toned organ blast That rolls through arches dim Hints of the music vast Of thy eternal hymn.

A competent organist (i.e. someone other than me) could surely arrange for some quite attention-getting effects on the words I put in bold typeface. What fun that would be!

Not too long ago, I preached on the text from John’s gospel that tells of the wedding miracle at Cana. The evangelist tells us that this was the first of Jesus’ “signs” and that in that sign he “manifested his glory.” And as a result of that manifestation of glory, “his disciples believed in him.” In 2005, my wife and I climbed to the Whispering Gallery in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. From those dizzying heights, we could see some of the 32’ pedal pipes, laid horizontal on mezzanine levels that would not be visible from the nave. Then somebody started demonstrating the organ, and we heard some deep-toned blasts that we shall never forget. Yes, “all beauty” speaks of God. But for some of us, it is particularly present in deep-toned organ blasts rolling through dim arches.

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