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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Daily Double for Assumption: Two songs for Assumption (WLP, 2005)

The Assumption, from the chapel at my
alma mater, St Mary's of the Barrens,
Perryville MO
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? On this underappreciated feast day, I thought I'd share the brief stories of two songs I have written specifically for this day. One is a setting of the responsorial psalm of the day, and the other a sort of antiphonal hymn. Both were published by World Library Publications in my 2005 collection Christ the Icon. The album post is here.

I wrote "Every Generation" as a commission for St. Mary’s Parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin, for their 150th anniversary in 2003. Their church is under the patronage of Our Lady of the Assumption. Drew Rutz, the organist there, commissioned the score for brass quartet, organ, oboe, and cello, but we scaled that down a bit for this recording to make it more accessible to more churches. The refrain text is an expansion of the communion antiphon for the Feast of the Assumption, taken from the Magnificat. Using two response texts, one placed on the lips of Mary at the Annunciation and the other on the lips of her Son in response to someone’s praise of his mother, the verses describe Mary’s blessing in her Assumption as foreshadowed in her life by her actions as mother and disciple. It is as mother and disciple, servant of God, that we remember Mary of Nazareth, remembering in her own words that it is “God who has done great things” for her.

Two parallel thoughts alternate in each couplet that the cantor sings. As an example:
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to eat and drink,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: Now Christ takes you to eat his wedding feast.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to stand and walk,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: He guides your steps on paths of paradise.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.So the cantor first sings some imagined event from the family life of Nazareth or something from the gospels in which Mary gives something to Jesus as his mother, and then in a parallel text imagines Christ in glory "returning the favor," as it were, but in the glory of heaven in the act of the Assumption. Returning the antiphon each time, we may begin to see at least one sense in which "every generation calls you blessed," and how "God has done great things for you." Throughout, Mary's greatness is seen in her being "servant of the Lord" and disciple in her everyday life by keeping the Torah, raising her son in justice, and being formed in love as the image of God.

In preparing myself and trying to get ideas for the commission, though, I pored through some of the apocrypha about the Assumption, particularly the story as recounted in the Dormition of the Mother of God by pseudo-John, complete with the Virgin being taken up on a couch, and an angry "well-born Hebrew" trying to hold her back and having a seraphim cut his arms off, leaving them dangling from the couch. In spite of the presence of a lot of anti-Jewish polemics, Peter restores the man's arms to him. You can't make this stuff up. But it also doesn't belong in a hymn, right? The editors at WLP (rightly) decided that it would be a more useful song if the verses were about a cross-section of Marian mysteries, so I provided another set of verses of general use.

Psalm 45: "The Queen Stands at Your Right Hand" is my second "stab" at setting this psalm, though I have to say that this current version owes a lot to the former. There is no getting around the cultural milieu of the text of Psalm 45, which is a "A song for the Davidic king’s marriage to a foreign princess from Tyre in Phoenicia," whose florid text not only praises the king for his godly qualities but even calls him "god." But the section of the psalm cited for today's use is addressed to the queen herself, praising her beauty and reminding her that her past is history, she's now in the king's house and belongs to him. It's an epithalamion, applied in the Christian era to Mary, Theotokos, mother of God and queen of heaven.

I had hoped, for your amusement, to be able to find the original version of this psalm that I wrote 35 years ago or so, but have been unable to unearth the manuscript from my own personal Nag Hammadi, aka my office. Perhaps I can append it at a later date, should archaeologists succeed in recovering it. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from the current version, and if you like it and/or the song above, visit the World Library website and check it out. Below is a link to iTunes, whence the two songs may be purchased.