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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songstories 29 - "Faithful Cross" (OCP, 2011, music by Tom Kendzia)

Faithful Cross page, at

Tom and I near Watch Hill, RI, in 2012
Someone asked me to write a little about this song, and it seems like a good time to do it, being late in Lent and all!

Tom Kendzia and I have been friends for nearly 35 years, and we've seen each other at our best and worst, though usually while laughing like hyenas and courting aneurysms. Unbelievably, he has been ensconced at his parish, Christ the King, in Kingston, Rhode Island, longer even than I've been at St. Anne's, and he's just on his second pastor there, too. Christ the King is near the campus of the University of Rhode Island, though it serves the larger community of Kingston. Over the years, that parish has opened its doors and heart to us many times, and we've come to know some of the wonderful people that Tom has served so well for so many years.

Tom and I have collaborated before, as I mentioned in a blog post last year on collaborating. For a number of years, Tom, who introduced me back in the late 80s and early 90s to Mark of the Unicorn software and the concept, at least, of sequencing for performing and recording, was always more into the sequencing side and less into the composition side of computer music. For my part, while I found the sequencing side useful at times, I moved quickly away from the MOTU software to Finale, where I have stayed for the last 25 years or so. While I'm not an expert by any means, Finale is the software I have used for writing and arranging my own music since at least 1995 or so. Files I have from 1991 for my own Cries of the Spirit, Volume 1 were created with MOTU's Professional Composer.

While Tom has a good working knowledge of Finale, I think the actual creation of scores in Finale is too tedious for him, so I have had the opportunity to put many of his songs and those of some of his clients into Finale format for distribution or submission to publishers. This was the case with some of the files for his current collection, entitled Like a River. Tom had set the Roman Missal text of a Good Friday hymn, "Crux Fidelis," to a melody that startled me with its beauty. But, as I wrote to Tom, I thought that the text in the Missal limped along as poetry and didn't really suit his tune. (The normative text is available, by the way, as an option with is music.) And this judgment is a matter of taste, of course, but the refrain of the hymn as translated in the missal is:
Faithful cross the saints rely on,
Noble tree beyond compare,
Never was there such a scion,
Never leaf or flow'r so rare.
Sweet the timber, sweet the iron,
Sweet the burden that they bear.
I just couldn't bear the use of "scion" in the refrain, which is a perfectly good word, but mostly a Toyota, and the use of "iron" as a rhyme for "rely on" and "scion". How on earth do you sing "iron" on two syllables?

The other problem, or mismatch, is that Tom's melody is suited to a song in quatrain form, that is, with four-line stanzas and refrain, and "Faithful Cross/Crux Fidelis" has ternary verses and refrain, meaning that Tom had to repeat a line in the verses and refrain to make the poem fit his melody, which is perfectly fine, of course. But when I mentioned to him my concerns about the text vis-a-vis his tune, he said, "Why don't you write me something?" And so I did.

I had been wanting to write something else about the cross for a while, something that is sort of a companion piece to my "Christ the Icon" lyric, but more specifically about the cross as symbol of utter transformation. I wanted to be able to say, in song, that, as unthinkable as it is that Jesus would have used the term "cross" to mean anything other than a form of capital punishment at the hands of the god Caesar, it has, over the centuries, come to have a different cluster of meaning as its power for death-dealing was transformed by Christ's resurrection and the preaching of the apostles. The cross is a tremendous mystery, and it is dangerous ground upon which to tread poetically, lest it be made maudlin or pathetic on the one hand, or triumphalist on the other. But as you who write poetry and song lyrics know, we fools, bewitched by Erato, go where angels fear to tread.

So, over the course of a week or two, I came up with a new lyric for Tom's transparently cruciform tune, which became the version of "Faithful Cross" that appears on his CD and in print at OCP. Below the excerpt, I'll post the lyric and an iTunes link. The song page at OCP is linked on the first line of this blog.

Thank you to Tom for his friendship, musical mentoring, and consistent sharing of his tremendous talent with all of us for so many years, and for this beautiful melody that invites us to ponder anew the events of salvation.

This year, the bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, is giving Tom the "Lumen Gentium" award for parish service in the diocese. This award is well-deserved by a wonderful musician who has served the church of Providence, and the whole country, so well for so many years. A compassionate person and a musician's musician, I'm privileged to have called Tom "friend" for so many years.

I've called him a lot of other things, too, but that's for a different time and place.

Faithful Cross
Lyrics by Rory Cooney

1. Who shall dare to sing the praises
Of the gallows tree whose limbs
Bore the carpenter of Nazareth,
Tree whose wood was borne by him?
Sing as his dear blood and spirit,
Mingled with the air and earth,
Make the tree a new creation,
Recreate the universe.

2. Mighty is the arm of Caesar
Who to God's own name pretends,
Strong the iron of the arrow,
Stronger still the oak that bends.
Christ's the empire unlike others,
All must put away the sword.
Here the king becomes the servant,
He who washes feet is Lord.

REF. Rising from the earth to heaven,
Stretched between the mud and stars,
Terrible in pain and purpose,
Beautiful the wooden bars.
Rooted in the glades of Eden,
Tree that shaped the saving ark,
Light your frail human burden:
He the light undimmed by dark.

3. "Better one life than the nation,"
Argue those who plot and arm.
Guarding their civilization:
Violence and threats of harm.
Thus are prophets' voices silenced.
Privilege that fears its loss
Summons servant of the violence,
Forges nails, and builds the cross. R.

4. Love's astounding transformation
Gilds the instrument of death,
Love confounds sophistication,
Takes away the cynic's breath.
Ever shunning power and glory,
Love has stripped the cross of shame,
So God saved the human story,
Taking human flesh and name. R.

5. Lifted up, his heart laid open,
Robbed of breath, his body torn,
Still his arms recall the rainbow
Promising a world reborn.
Gazing on the cross, look upward,
Til his heart arrests the glance,
And his arms direct us outward
To the world, with healing hands. R.

Text © 2011 Rory Cooney, Music © 2011 Tom Kendzia.
Text and music published by OCP, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved.

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