Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gently, Lord, O Gently Lead Us

This Thursday, April 11, I had my first Episcopal funeral service experience other than my father's funeral. Hemming and hawing about whether I should blog about a funeral service, I decided to go ahead and write about it. My blog, while filled with occasional article-type posts, is mainly my personal blog and I want to capture a few thoughts for myself.

Gently, Lord, O gently lead us.
Through this lonely vale of tears,
And, O Lord, in mercy give us

Thy rich grace in all our fears

In the hour of pain and anguish,
In the hour when death draws near,
Suffer not our hearts to languish,
Suffer not our souls to fear;

When mortal life is ended,
Bid us in Thine arms to rest,
Till, by angel bands attended,
We awake among the blest.

I've loved this chorale as long as I've known it. The words of Thomas Hastings set to an Appalachian hymn arranged by Shenandoah University composer William Averitt , were used at the end of his arduous, yet gloriously beautiful St. Matthew Passion. I have extracyted the chorale and used it every Maundy Thursday (with his permission). Here is a performance of this piece that I recorded at the very end of the Passion at the 2009 National ACDA convention by the USC Concert Choir, directed. by my mentor Dr. Larry Wyatt. Several years prior, I gave the premiere of the world premiere of the Passion as one of my doctoral conducting recitals.

I chose this piece as our Introit for the funeral service. I chose it because it moves your very soul. In the original performance of the St. Matthew Passion, after two hours of standing, of soloists, some atonal counterpoint, and many chorales, I remember feeling entirely spent. We were exhausted.The simplicity of the chorale and the beauty of the words gave great relief and release as we finished the Passion, yet did not heal our sapped bodily strength. It did whoever, give us spirit and strength to handle the life that came next. In my humble view, this is how we approach Good Friday in Holy Week, physically exhausted and entirely spiritually spent, apprehensive of what is to come, yet our souls asking for God to lead us into and through this lonely vale of tears and all the way to the Resurrection.

The funeral was for Mr. T. G. "Teddy" Solomon, a great benefactor in New Orleans and the local Episcopal community. I did not know him, but I wished that I'd had the privilege after hearing his eulogy given by one of his sons. At last week's Episcopal Bluegrass Eucharist, it was announced by Bishop James B. Brown that Mr. Solomon had passed away in the night. I found it amazing that on this particular day, over 600 people were gathered together in a place that he supported and helped build and that bears his name - the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center. Mr. Solomon's obituary is here.

St. Paul's Episcopal had about 750 people come through the doors on a very rainy day and about 550 were present for the service.  THAT IS HUGE for us! I hadn't ever seen so many flower arrangements in my life - probably at all funerals I've ever been to - combined! It was lovely.I did not actually go into our chapel, The Solomon Chapel, for the visitation, but tons of guests were there including our mayor, members of the Manning and Brees families (Saints), and Harry Connick, Jr. I'm glad I didn't find that out until the next day ; )
The service had tons of music so I was very busy Monday through Wednesday preparing for it.
I re-realized in so doing, that I truly love working in the church and especially the Episcopal church.

The family invited the Shades of Praise Gospel Choir to perform and they did a great job. It was nice to have them as guests. Our St. Paul's Choir sang "Gently, Lord" (above) and Love Never Fails by J.A.C. Redford with piano and cello. While also fitting for a wedding, our priest mentioned to me that it was an Easter liturgy and that this would be appropriate here as well. Have a listen to a recording of this beautiful work at the end of this post.

Through Fr. Rob, I also became familiar with several chants used for the burial service. I suppose it's possibly weird that becoming aware of and knowing these chants was exciting, but they are indeed beautiful. Roughly S-379 to S-385. While I don't look forward to people passing away, I do hope that I will sing these someday. A couple of them are actually for the graveside rites.

The Episcopal burial rites are beautifully written.

Rite I  -
Rite II -

In many instances, I prefer Rite I, but they are both beautifully written. Some snippets of the language of the Eastern Orthodox funeral service can be found. It reminded me very much of John Tavener's  Song for Athene (recording below). He used text written by "Mother Thekla (18 July 1918 – 7 August 2011), an Orthodox nun who co-founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby, North Yorkshire, and whom Tavener called his "spiritual mother" (Wiki info). I've sung it twice. It's too large a work for a small choir to do well, but I did have St. Paul's sing it once for All Saints Day and it was very moving. It's definitely one of my favorite pieces so I was pleased to be able to find fractions of its text in the burial anthems.

I wish I remembered my father's funeral in 1998 because it was also an Episcopal service, but I barely remember hearing friends and family singing hymns. I was too upset. I have no recollection of most of his service, but I do distinctly remember evey moment of the graveside gathering and rites at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. I remember how comforting it was to see that friends of mine had come to the service and some to the graveside even though they did not know my father. Much later, the passage of time, a healer of the sting of loss, had smoothed the transition to a more solemn sadness which took the place of tears. It enabled me to mourn my father as I knew him over the course of my life rather than the immediacy of mourning a spirit wandering in and out of recognition and lost to Alzheimer's well before his death.

I was glad to have the experience of Mr. Solomon's funeral and I wish his family well.

Love Never Fails by J.A.C. Redford - we took it slightly slower (and also less breaths in the chant, more time with phrasing later etc.), but you can get a  sense of its beauty in this nice recording on J.A.C.'s website:

Song for Athene - Tavener
I specifically chose the YouTube recording of this at the funeral of Princess Diana. It is so very moving.

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.

Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.

The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.

Life: a shadow and a dream.

Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.


1 comment:

randall said...

nice post. personally, I think that your blog should be formatted just the way you're doing it, with a little bit of yourself and your experience, what makes you, you in each post.
thanks for sharing.