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Devotion: Promise of Peace

At rehearsal on December 3, 2013, in preparation of our upcoming Christmas Festival concerts, tenor Peter Moberg shared a devotion that is both a meditation and a choral history lesson. 

Tonight I have a kind of combination devotion and choral history lesson.  I've shared this story before, but it's been a while.  In fact, the year was 2 BCE (Before the Cherwien Era.)  The occasion was a concert at Orchestra Hall under the direction of Karl Erickson.  So I guess it's been long enough.

O Day Full of Grace has always been a favorite choral piece of mine, but became more so when I learned a bit about its early history and in particular about some of the people who were among the first to hear it.  O Day was published in 1943, which was the year its composer, F Melius Christiansen, retired outright (at age 72) from directing the St Olaf Choir, after having shared directing duties with his son Olaf the previous two school years.  I believe O Day was the first piece F Melius published after his retirement, which means that Olaf was the first to direct it in concert.  That timing gives an interesting twist to the story.

Olaf Christiansen was well known for having no qualms whatsoever about editing other composers' work.  One example was a piece by Jean Berger that Olaf reworked extensively.  Berger heard the choir do the piece in concert, and instead of raising a fist in righteous indignation, he went home and republished it "As sung by the St Olaf Choir, Olaf Christiansen conducting" and dedicated it to them.  Well, the works of the father were not immune from the editing pen of the son either, so my suspicion is that the "birds in the morning" verse, which is hardly ever done, was probably cut by Olaf from the get-go and not singing that verse became sort of a tradition.

Back to the main story:  The first time O Day appears on a choral concert program was the St Olaf Choir tour in 1944.  That tour almost didn't happen, partly due to the difficulties of traveling during the war and partly because the men in the choir were subject to the draft and it was never certain from one week to the next who might be called up.  But a shortened tour took place that April. One of the significant stops on the tour was the Great Lakes Naval Station at Chicago.  The choir had sung there in 1942, but that was shortly after the U.S. got into the war, when everyone was all gung-ho and ready to go over and kick some butt.  But by April of 1944 it was a different story.  The world was well into the war and was weary of it.  The tide of the war had not yet turned; D-Day was still 6 weeks off.  The world was quite a dark place indeed.

Along with it's primary duty as a naval training base, the Great Lakes Naval Station had become one of the larger military hospitals in the country, a major care facility for wounded service members returning from the front.  So it was those service members and their caregivers; all war-weary, longing for relief and healing and peace, who were among the first to hear this powerful setting of what was an old familiar hymn.  Imagining that particular audience, listening to those fresh-faced kids from Minnesota singing those powerful words of hope gives a special significance to O Day.

Minnesota singer-song writer, Peter Mayer, begins his song Stables with the words:
In Bethlehem a manger waits
Long ago, and so today
Where hatred-weary people pray
For Love to come and lay there.

We start this year's Christmas program with seeing the splendor of the rising star and with a prayer to enlighten those who dwell in darkness.  And we end with the promise of peace so needed by weary souls throughout the world and throughout time.  Humans seem to have an infinite capacity to create misery and darkness in our world.  Reminders of the coming light are a very deep need in those who are weary of war, of hatred, and of fears of a hundred different kinds.

Oh Light everlasting
Oh Love never failing
Illumine our darkness
and draw us to Thee.