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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ten Songs that Make a Difference (to me) - 6-10

Here I continue the list of ten songs that have influenced and even shaped my songwriting spirituality, from the years 1965-1985.

Mary's Song (text: Huub Oosterhuis; music: J. Michael Joncas, © 1979, New Dawn)

I think it's fair to say that Michael Joncas's collection On Eagle's Wings was a revelation to a lot of us in music ministry. Scriptural, lyric, choral, accessible, OEW set the bar a little higher for composers and choirs alike, and marked the debut of a man who has gone on to become one of the great lights of the Church in the United States, a pastoral scholar and a pastoral musician with a scientist's thirst for truth, a seeker's heart, and a missionary's passion. 

"Mary's Song" was striking to me from the outset because of the refrain which is the quintessential Advent text describing Mary and the Church: "Happy are they who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled." Such a delicious sentence, brimming with temporal paradox! Joncas's music is both familiar and modern-sounding. The metric text of the verses is set to two different melodies, one voiced for two singers, the other for SATB choir. In the latter case, rich chord clusters burst into joyful cadences announcing that God "strips us bare of our self-conceit" and "sends the rich away with empty hands". A very satisfying Magnificat!

Of course, the collection also contained the great title song, "I Have Loved You," his beautiful setting of Psalm 84, "How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place," and "The Lord Is Near/May the Angels," which we sing at every funeral at St. Anne's. Thanks, Michael.

When from Our Exile (Oosterhuis/Huijbers etal., NALR/OCP)
Almost everyone I know who has been in liturgical music since the 70s remembers their sense of wonder and gratitude when first exposed to this first American release by the Dutch composer Bernard Huijbers and lyricist Huub Oosterhuis, edited for English by several sensitive translators. Huijbers and Oosterhuis were a huge influence on many of us, notably Tom Conry and Tony Barr. But Huijbers's theory of the "performing audience" as a model of worship singing and sacrament of church has come to be the blueprint for most of us as we design music for liturgy in our parishes.

The songs have been retranslated over the years; the title song has become "Home from Our Exile" and the only song from the collection that has continued to be anthologized is "Hold Me in Life," a haunting paraphrase of Psalm 25. But there was much more that was memorable within, lyrics that will not leave the singer alone, even after thirty years. For instance, there was the closing piece in the collection, "Even Then", which simply repeated this text:
Even then, even then I'll cling to you,
Cling to you, cling tight to you,
Whether you want me or not.
In your good grace, or even out of it,
"Save me, save me!" I cry to you,
Or maybe only, "Love me! Love me!"

Huijbers, a former Jesuit, passed away about ten years ago. But his work continues to edify and build our faith, his spirit continues to strengthen the Church in the communion of saints.

I Shall See God (Tom Conry, TEAM Publications, OCP)

I don't think any other composer's work has influenced me more than Conry's. It is difficult to pick the one song of his that was most significant, but while his first collection, Ashes, demonstrated the kitsch-and-jargon-scorning angularity of text and tune that were his trademark, the second collection, We the Living, demonstrated the maturity of a few more years of experience and the influence of Huijbers, including some of Huijbers own material generously introduced by Tom to American churches. 

Notable among these were two eucharistic prayers, "You Who Know" and "To Become Man in People". Achingly beautiful texts set to Huijbers's characteristically elemental melodies successfully juxtaposed scriptural images with the human experience of longing, sin, fear, and solidarity in a way that has not really been equalled since, except possibly by Antoine Oomen, and Michael Joncas's stunning Eucharistic Prayer called "The Winter Name of God," which pays homage to Huijbers in one of its musical motifs.

I shall never forget being in the assembly at the NPM closing liturgy in Detroit, maybe in 1981 or so, and singing with two or three thousand other musicians the words of this song of Tom's:
"I shall sing while I live.
I will be there for you.
And I shall see God 
and celebrate what my life may be."
The ceiling of ballroom trembled, and there was a sense that we had encountered the truth of what liturgy might be.

Tom has mentored me and a lot of us through the last twenty years or so. His commitment to scripture, his resolute rejection of nostalgia, romance, and platonism in liturgical song, his clear vision of the political imperative of liturgical solidarity, all of these have made us better writers and better preparers of worship, wary of ritual into a substitute for life. I'm grateful for his presence and his art. 

My favorite memory, among many, of making music with Tom: singing Phil Ochs's song, "The Crucifixion", together with him at a concert in Phoenix in the late 1980's.

Beginning Today (Ducote, Damean Music, GIA)

"Here I Am, Lord," by Dan Schutte was a natural evolution of the St. Louis Jesuit's style. It was just so strong, its passion so condensed, that I can remember hearing it for the first time and thinking what a wonderful song it was, and suspecting it would be hugely popular. The same thing happened when I first heard Bernadette Farrell's "Christ Be Our Light" on an OCP sampler recording. But I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Dameans' "Beginning Today,"  (in our mobile home, in Glendale, AZ, in about 1975), and I was just floored.

Hearing the song now, with its simple chord progression and innocent text, it is easy to shove off as folksy kitsch, but the thing is that in its time it was an invisible seam between popular folk music and music written for worship. The lyrics often ambiguous "you" in this tender love song was revealed in the verses to be the divine lover, but as you heard it and sang it, you could imagine it was written for and sung to a human lover, and so it became a popular song at weddings. Now, as I reflect on the text, it seems more baptismal, a springtime ode to the passion of conversion desire.

Over the years, I've had a number of opportunities to meet and occasionally make music with the Dameans. Gary Daigle, a late but transformative addition to the quartet, has been my friend, colleague, and collaborate for going on thirty years. Their 1978 collection Remember Your Love, the first Gary Daigle collaboration, was another moment for me, and in my part of the country, marked a move toward including piano in music for worship in Catholic churches. But "Beginning Today" was my introduction to Gary Ault and the music of the Dameans, and I'm glad for their contribution, the spirituality and honesty of their efforts from the FEL years through their association with NALR and GIA. Thanks, guys.

In Your Love, Remember Me (Tom Kendzia, NALR, OCP © 1980)

Tom Kendzia has been a great friend and fellow traveler on this musical journey for over thirty years. Our first musical association was his asking me to direct a choir to showcase his music at the Detroit NPM National Convention, in 1980 or 81. Before that, I had only known his name through the NALR catalog and advertisements. Preparing the music for that conference, I began to realize what a talent he had for harmony and pop music hooks, way beyond my grasp of the craft. His piano playing, too, was confident and fresh, playing with familiar pop patterns and bringing the energy of arena and theater venues to the music he wrote for American churches.

Light of the World was the collection he had just finished, with Paul Quinlan producing, and it was different from anything else at the time that I was aware of. The orchestrations were punchy and rich, the synthesizer made an intelligent and mesmerizing appearance, and there were unembarrassed rhythm tracks that further livened the songs. What Daniel (now Cyprian, OSBCam) Consiglio was doing to integrate the sound of Bob Marley and the Police into music for teens at St. Jerome in Phoenix (that eventually morphed into LifeTeen, through the passion and genius of Daniel's padewan, Tom Booth, and others), Tom was doing with the sound of Elton John and Billy Joel.

Of all the songs on Light of the World, "In Your Love Remember Me" blew me away most completely. It is a ballad in verse-refrain form, with two verses having different melodies, and a haunting refrain with a melody crafted as though from a remembered dream. Hearing it, singing it, I felt I was in the presence of a vision greater than myself. Tom has proven his versatility and adaptability over and over again through the years. But the freshness of some of these early songs, this one, "As a Doe," especially the instrumental bridge and the cadence of the refrain, and the exuberant title song, made me grateful for his invitation to get to know his music better when we met that day in Phoenix so long ago.

As I close, I want you to know that these are not the ten songs that I have used the most since I heard them. The choices are very personal. They're more about my perception of liturgical music and its lines than they are my favorites when planning worship. The songs I choose for worship, as well as songs I've written, are all experienced and even judged through the filter of these watershed songs of my life. I hope that clarifies a little.

Here's the list, a recap before saying goodbye:

1. I Am the Bread of Life, by S. Suzanne Toolan, SM (GIA, c 1966)
2. Song of the Three Young Men (Richard Proulx, c. 1973)
3. We Come to Join in Your Banquet of Love by Tom Parker (WLP, c. 1968) 
4. Psalm 100 "Let All the Earth Cry Out to God with Joy," by Ralph Verdi, C.Pp.S. (Composers' Forum for Catholic Worship).
5. It's a Brand New Day Paul Quinlan, FEL.
6. Mary's Song (text: Huub Oosterhuis; music: J. Michael Joncas, 1979, New Dawn)
7. When from Our Exile (Oosterhuis/Huijbers etal., NALR/OCP)
8. I Shall See God (Tom Conry, TEAM Publications, OCP)
9. Beginning Today (Ducote, Damean Music, GIA)
10. In Your Love, Remember Me (Kendzia, NALR, OCP)


  1. "When from our exile" is part of my personal soundtrack. While I often hum it, I haven't heard it in church for years. I miss it!

  2. "When from our exile" is a wonderful piece of music, and like my friend Shannon, I miss it too. In fact, we have a new music minister, maybe I can suggest it...

    Your two part post was so moving to me and so life-giving. Thank you for the reminders of so many great pieces of church music, but the reminder more importantly, of who we are called to be as church.