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Devotion: Carrying traditions to the next generation

Prior to a tour performance at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL, NLC bass Paul Wilson gave a devotion. Portions of the program will be given at a pair of performances in the Twin Cities on November 3 & 4, 2012. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the NLC office at 612.722.2301 or look here.

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I’m a questioner. I’m always trying to figure things out – whether it’s financial markets, plumbing, kids, myself or music – I find myself digging deeper, trying to find context, looking at different perspectives (perhaps not for the plumbing) – in an effort to try to figure it all out. And this has been the case with the National Lutheran Choir since I joined just over a year ago. On the surface, it’s easy to see who we are: a choir of the highest quality with a commitment to the Lutheran choral-singing tradition. Great definition, but WHO are we? Why do we exist? What is our role – not simply in the here and now, but also in the context of days gone by and days yet to come? Why is what we do and how we do it important at all to anyone but ourselves?

Fortunately, in the NLC, when we have questions, we have two wonderful sources to find answers: our music and our faith. So, I jumped off the diving board and dove into our music to see what it might reveal about us.

Cyrillus Kreek, whose settings of Psalms 104 & 141 we sing tonight, was born into a family of school teachers in 1889 in Estonia. Now, before I go on, please understand the context of Estonia in the world. This is a tiny country – three Estonias could fit into Iowa. It’s a country with an unbelievably diverse folk singing tradition among it million-plus population. Kreek attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia for his training and despite being surrounded by some of the most gifted musicians and composers of his generation – Jascha Heifetz, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Respighi and Gretchaninoff – he decided to head back to his homeland with a commitment to collect the songs of his people. In all, the folk music files of Kreek contained over 6,000 tunes – much of it sacred. It is incredible that a country so small created such a mountain of songs. These were a singing people with the richest of traditions. By collecting and protecting this music, Kreek had no idea what it would mean some 80 years later to the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these people whose songs he collected, but he knew it was important. Because in the 1990s, after decades of oppression and occupation by the Soviets, the Estonians sang these songs - they came together and with tens of thousands of voices strong, they stood as a people and sang the songs of their ancestors and won their freedom. Kreek often used these collected tunes in his choral settings, and while I was unable to find a direct link to the two we sing tonight, I can’t help but hear the resolve and pride of Estonia in the lush harmonies and rich melodies, inspired and influenced by this tradition. 

I then turned to the United States to look at – not our tradition – but the tradition of the African-American spiritual. We see another common thread of an unbelievably oppressed people united with each other and their Maker in song. In “All My Trials,” we hear the reality of their plight and only a hint of something better: 

            If religion was a thing that money could buy,

            The rich would live and the poor would die.

            All my trials, Lord, soon be over.

In “Keep Your Hands On the Plow,” (soloist) Kate (Tripoli) brings it home. She preaches to us, letting us know that indeed, if we hold on, after all our trials, heaven has been promised to us. Kate sings this beautifully and with great conviction. For slaves, these songs weren’t the beautiful arrangements that we have today. They were clear, stark and simple melodies that served as a continuous reminder that there was a promised land, and that someday, they would see it. Their music was among only a few ways they had to find hope each day, each week, and each year in a hopeless world. And today, these spirituals represent a past we will not repeat, and show the strength and resolve of a people repressed for far too long.

Almost every piece, every composer this evening can be traced back in this manner. Healey Willan, who composed “How They So Softly Rest,” understood the importance of music passing from generation to generation. As an Anglican musician, Willan was not allowed to use plainsong in worship because the Anglican church forbid the use of Latin. However, understanding the importance of these ancient tunes, he translated and set the forbidden plainsong to English text. 

We borrow these songs, these works, and do our best to honor these traditions and their peoples with our performance. But what about our tradition?

The hymns we sing tonight sit at the root of our own tradition.  These are our songs. These songs have come from the generations preceding us: our fathers; our grandmothers; our great-grandfathers. And in Johann Crüger’s case (the man behind “Now Thank We All Our God”), our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Our lineage is long and it is deep.

It brings back wonderful memories of visiting my grandparents in Litchfield, MN as a young child on many Sundays after church. We would have our Sunday dinner (or lunch as it was known any other day) and would then move to the den to sing by the piano. What would we sing? These hymns. As a young child being raised Catholic, these hymns were largely unfamiliar to me, but I cherished the time spent listening to, and singing with, my grandparents. Little did I know what they would mean to me as an adult.

When my grandfather passed away, I was still too young to really appreciate the hymns sung at his funeral, but I knew they were chosen carefully and were among his favorites. It was only when I was at my grandmother’s bedside as a new father that I felt the power of these simple hymns.

In the months leading up to that moment, my grandmother suffered a series of debilitating strokes. She could no longer walk, no longer sit, no longer eat, drink or speak. Most tragically of all, she could no longer sing. As my father and I stood next to her, she, and we, could see the end was near. As a woman of great faith, she knew she was headed to the promised land, but the departure, and her separation from us (albeit temporary) brought great sadness to us all. To ease our pain and to bring some comfort to my grandmother, we did what we had done on so many Sundays of my childhood: we sang. While we did, tears poured from my grandmother’s eyes. And when my father’s voice failed him, it was me alone – a grandson, singing the hymns his grandmother taught him, while his father embraced his mother in the final moments of her life.

These hymns are important.

For those of us not directly tied to this tradition, it is a tradition that embraces those new to it. I have been deeply embraced by it, and for that I am so thankful.

We can never know what the music of a people will mean to those in future generations. We can look to other traditions – whether Estonian or African-American – to see what is possible, but in the end, it is unknown. But, like Kreek, who collected thousands of simple tunes from his people’s tradition, what we do know is that these hymns are vitally important to nurture and protect.

The National Lutheran Choir. We are the stewards of this tradition in our country. These hymns, and these hymn festivals, have been entrusted to us.  We proudly carry this torch together for our children, our children’s children, and beyond.

That is who we are.

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Please pray with me.

Lord, bless this space and our music. Help us to honor the makers of these songs, the generations who have sung them before us, and those who sing them in the years to come.  Amen.