I’ve reached the Psalms now as I make my way devotionally through the Bible for the umpteenth time. As this is the songbook of the Bible there are lots of references to singing. Such as Psa 9:2 “I will be glad and exult in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High.” I am reminded of some of the remarkable times I’ve enjoyed musically.
There are almost as many musical styles as there are people. And churches I’ve attended have performed a diverse sampling. I still enjoy many of the rock sounds of contemporary Christian music such as the group Mercy Me, and their title “Finally Home,” or Nichole Nordeman’s, This Mystery album, and the stirring older a cappella work of the group called Glad. Christian rock has matured tonally and creatively to closely match the sophistication of todays best secular music. But the music I appreciate is that which moves my spirit. If it generates goose bumps or a lump in the throat or a tear (like “Finally Home” does, as my own dad died a few years ago), that is what I will choose to listen to.
But some of the most meaningful music I’ve experienced has been the classical choral works of generations gone by. I’ve been in church choirs since shortly after meeting the Lord and have had the blessing of sitting under some delightful choir directors, Dr. Jerry of Ward Pres. Church, John Busch of Grace Bible Church, Pat McLaughlin and Dr. Jerry Blackstone of Huron Hills Baptist Church, who appreciated the vast breadth of musical tradition of Western Civilization, especially when it is Scripture based. I can’t detail all of the works I’ve sung, but a few of the highlights are worth listing.
At the top of the list because of its prevalence would be Handel’s Messiah, performed either in full or in selections in all choirs I’ve been in. It compels me to concur with the Psalmist, (Psalm 21:13) “Be exalted, O LORD, in Your strength; We will sing and praise Your power.” The exaltation of praise I feel singing through this very powerful work is palpable. It never fails to inspire even after repeated performances.
From the performance perspective the experience of my singing Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 has no equal. That is because of the singular experience of the venue, Carnegie Hall, back in 1993. I’ve written about this event in detail. And I still get chills remembering this fabulous weekend in New York city with my wife Melissa and some very good friends in the choir.
The other masterpiece of Mendelssohn I sang is the oratorio Elijah, taken from the Biblical books First and Second Kings. This work is a lot of fun to perform.
Another amazing choral work is Vivaldi’s Gloria. And I’ve sung the Bach St. Matthew’s Passion in a huge production at Ward Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan. Dr. Jerry shared a huge amount of great classical choral works with us.
So much music, so little time. I shouldn’t let pass the two years of the best concentrated choir experience of my life. I was blessed to be a part of Bryan College’s choir in my Freshman and Sophomore year there, 1979 and 1980. The choir tours they undertook those years were amazing, and I’ll never forget them. A bus full of us toured the Eastern US for a couple weeks during Spring Break, led by choir director David C. Friberg. Along with stirring performances in a lot of churches, we sang standing on the second floor of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, when Mr. Friberg stepped over the velvet railing and played the harpsichord while we sang a short number. We sang in the Luray Cavern voices echoing in the chamber far underground. Amazing times!
And now the best for last.
One piece I’m still waiting to perform is Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, Op. 48. Compared to Mozart’s Requiem, which sounds more like a dirge for the pagan, Faure writes for the glorified saints, and the joy of the Resurrection. You can feel this in the many uses of rising tones throughout the work. And for sheer beauty, the Pie Jesu, sung by Lucia Popp in the version, is the most purely beautiful of sounds to magnify our Redeemer. The Wikipedia article on this work quotes Faure, “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance . . . .” And this is exactly correct. Whereas Mozart’s version is heavy and evokes the fear and terror of death, Faure’s Requiem, is light and extols the joy and glory of shedding this mortal coil and being at peace in the company of our Lord. If you can find it the most spectacular version I’ve heard is the one that introduced me to this work (thanks Mark Garrett!), published in 1978 by CBS/Odyssey, featuring Lucia Popp, soprano, and Siegmund Nimsgern, baritone, and the Ambrosian Singers, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis. Sadly this version has been out of print for a while and is very difficult to find, though You Tube has some of the selections. Faure’s Requiem is simply a gorgeously spectacular work, and can transport you to a higher level of worship hearing it in its entirety. And throughout this piece you can agree with the Psalmist: (28:7) “. . . . my heart exults, And with my song I shall thank Him.”
What better thanks and exaltation can be expressed in such a powerful medium such as music?