Music this Sunday: November 4, 2018

This Sunday, November 4, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints (transferred from its canonical date of November 1). As has been FLC’s practice on major feasts over the last few years, we will sing Divine Service 5, Martin Luther’s Deutsche Messe as retained in Lutheran Service Book. The incidental music for Sunday’s feast is based on the Gloria from that mass setting, Nicolaus Decius’s Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (LSB 947). This Gloria was sung almost universally in Lutheran churches from the mid-sixteenth century onward for the next few centuries, and it is no surprise that Johann Sebastian Bach set this chorale tune numerous times for organ. The setting used as Sunday’s prelude (BWV 676) is a trio, with two high voices (played today on the flute stops) dueling against one low voice. Curiously, the melody doesn’t appear at all until the very end, in the lowest voice, and only the first two phrases of the melody at that!

The setting used for the postlude (BWV 715) couldn’t be more different than the setting from the prelude. It is a so-called “Arnstadt chorale,” one of several that bear record to Bach’s style of hymn-playing around 1706. The melody is harmonized densely and rather confusingly, and between every phrase is a Zwischenspiel (“between-play”) connecting the end of one phrase to the next. As if that weren’t enough, Bach uses every single note in the chromatic scale to harmonize the last phrase. Imagine trying to sing the hymn this way! It is no wonder that Bach and the congregation did not get along; indeed, he left for Mühlhausen in 1707.

Between the Epistle and the Gospel lessons, the choir will sing the historic Sequence for All Saints. A Sequence is an extrabiblical poem—a hymn—generally written in a classical meter. More than a thousand Sequences appeared in the medieval liturgy, but only four were retained by the Council of Trent. The Lutherans retained several more Sequences than the Romans, one of which was the Sequence for All Saints’ Day. This Sequence asks that God grant us His grace so that we may be guided by the example of the saints who have gone before us to lead holy lives in praise of God (as today’s Gospel encourages).

The choir will also sing a lovely motet from the Lutheran tradition by Jacob Handl, Ecce quomodo moritur justus. This text is traditionally appointed for the Tenebrae responsories on Holy Saturday, and in the Lutheran tradition Handl’s setting is sung on Good Friday immediately following the Passion according to John, as well as at burials. In conjunction with its traditional use, it makes for a moving commentary on All Saints’ Day: the “righteous man has been raised from the face of iniquity” through the merits of Christ. Truly, “no one [in the world] understands” it; nevertheless, “Zion is his habitation, and his memory shall be in peace.”

And at the Offertory, the congregation will sing the Te Deum laudamus, an Ambrosian hymn that dates from the fourth century and is perhaps the Church’s quintessential hymn of praise. Traditionally used as the canticle at Matins year-round, it is particularly appropriate for All Saints’ Day, as it confesses the prophets, apostles, and martyrs to be an active part of the Church, even now, and illuminates what Christ has done to redeem both them and us.

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