Today, we celebrated Psalm Sunday. You may have noticed your organist playing the hymns and liturgy a little more joyously today than on many of the other Sundays in Lent. This is in stark contrast to how the music will sound latter in the week as we remember Christ's suffering and death for our redemption. And of course, nothing will compare to the unbridled joyful noise that will fill our churches on Easter morn!
Since this week provides the perfect opportunity to hear how music is used to support the text, I thought I'd share an article I wrote that discusses this very topic.
God's Word is our crown jewel: it is the most beautiful thing that we have. It is our treasure, and by it, we know of our salvation by Christ's death and resurrection. This is why Lutheran worship is so beautiful. It is not about what we do or what we can offer to God; rather, it is about hearing His Word and receiving the forgiveness of sins that comes through Word and Sacrament. And so we keep God's Word at the center of our liturgy and everything else is built around it: the setting highlights the jewel.
Part of this setting is the music. As an organist, it is the Word that informs what I play during Divine Service and how I play it. As you sit in the pew, you may not be paying attention to the music as you sing. You may not notice how this stanza is played differently from that stanza, or why the organist does this or that when playing the Gloria. I invite you, yes you, dear brother or sister, to listen to what your organist plays. Is he or she playing a stanza light and airily? Does it suddenly seem as if all the voices of the organ are joining together as one? What are you hearing? As you begin to pick these things out, notice how they connect to the text you are singing. Does what you hear reflect what you speak?
As an example, let us consider together LSB 621 Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. In the first stanza, when the text says "and with fear and trembling stand" one might hear a fluttering as the organ waivers back and forth between two notes. Later, in the lowest notes, the bass pitches, we might hear notes descending stepwise as we sing "Christ our God to earth descending". In stanza two, we might notice that the aural texture becomes lighter, as the organist removes stops, or sets of organ pipes, so that we can contemplate how Christ took on our flesh and blood by being born as a little babe. Yet in the very next stanza, we might hear the organ grow in volume and grandeur as more and more pipes of varying colors get added to the ensemble, representing the whole host of heaven. As the stanza progresses and speaks of "the pow'rs of hell", the organ might become increasingly dissonant, only to wither away to near silence "as the darkness clears away." The final stanza is triumphant as we join our voices with the heavenly host and cry "Alleluia, Alleluia! Alleluia, Lord Most High!" We might notice the organist adds bright trumpets and fills out the voices of the organ to land finally on a major chord, though this hymn otherwise sounds a bit somber in its minor key.
These are just a sampling of the techniques that organists use to highlight the text of hymns and the liturgy. Now that we've explored some of these techniques by considering Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, you are equipped to continue to explore how an organist aurally supports God's Word. Now go, rejoice in God's Word, our jewel, by joining your voice with your brothers and sisters throughout the ages!