By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
We just received word that one of the members of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, Paul Stanbery, passed away on Saturday, February 6, 2020. The CFAMC Virtual International Conference of October 17, 2020, closed with Stanbery’s “In the Cathedral,” the lofty and inspiring second movement from his Symphony No. 2: Foundations. Stanbery had been suffering from cancer for some time and he prepared us well for his departure to heaven – as well as anyone could. But it is still difficult to say goodbye to a brother composer in Christ, and his loss will be profoundly felt throughout CFAMC and the many other communities and circles in which he lived, ministered, and loved.
I will let others more qualified than myself tell his complete life story and we will celebrate his life more completely in the CFAMC at a later date. But I do want to share my own Stanbery moment with you.
I wrote a review of one of his works a couple of years ago in a column like this. The CD’s and thanks he sent me mean so much to me now, but one single comment from a December 29, 2020, email stands out to me: “Your review of my Music for Mass gave me courage to compose more. After you wrote your review, we took it to Carnegie Hall in 2018. Standing ovation!”
I gave Paul Stanbery courage? How? He seemed to have courage in spades. He lived life and composed music grandly, as though he were in the service of the most noble ruler ever – and, of course, he was. Yet my simple words had encouraged him; and his simple reply now encourages me to write more about my sisters and brothers in Christ in CFAMC and the amazing music we all create. For this reason, this and all reviews of this conference will be known as the Paul Stanbery Chronicles to honor and remember him as he enters eternal life.
This issue of the Paul Stanbery Chronicles will focus on the Conference of October 17, 2020, and, in particular, a Devotion, a Paper Presentation, a Panel Discussion, and the Second Concert – music by Barb Holm
This Zoom concert took place at 3:45 pm Eastern Daylight Time. Seven CFAMC composers’ works were featured, so we will examine music by Barb Holm, Jerry Casey, Jack Ballard, Richard Cerchia, Andy Robinson, Bill Vollinger, and Heather Niemi Savage. We will also briefly comment on a devotional, paper presentation, and group discussion during the conference.
Ian Guthrie presented a challenging devotional “A Church Divided by Zero: One body, not one cell.” He shared from I Corinthians, where Paul addresses a church body with many different allegiances: to Peter, Apollos, Paul, and Christ Himself. This exhortation was certainly timely and a welcome commentary on the divisions of the church today, which reverberate even through CFAMC.
Josh Rodriguez, the Cal Baptist-based composer and professor whose music we covered earlier, led an energetic conversation on “Composing During Quarantine.” In addition to being a terrific composer, he must be an outstanding teacher of composition, because he shared many different ways to compose that were all great starters for new pieces and encouraged us to compose on a daily basis – always a fitting challenge for all composers.
And Bill Furioso presented a paper entitled Aesthetics & Worldview. This, in his words, is a “call to God-centered art, purporting that in the biblical worldview, God is Ultimate Reality; and that for the Christian artist, art is the communication, or expression, or reflection of one’s perception of that Reality.” I resonate with his desire for the higher arts to be reflective of God’s Person and glory rather than surrendering these arts to the self-glorification of their human creators, an issue we will revisit below in the music of Barbara Holm.
This is a good time to turn to the second concert. While the first and third concerts featured previously video-recorded live performances, the second concert made room for music in MIDI format with the score displayed during the playback. I was delighted to be introduced to these worthy new works that, during COVID-19 especially, might not yet have seen the light of day. It is my prayer that the end of COVID-19 will arrive sooner than later and that we will hear these works performed live soon.
Barb Holm presented two works on this program, Meditate on These Things, a motet for SATB choir and organ, and Vägen (The Road), a setting of Dag Hammarskjöld’s short poem “Vägen.” When I consider motets, which by definition set Biblical texts and are therefore sacred music, I think of the struggles composers have endured for centuries as they sought to serve the Church. Some, like Josquin des Prez, had very expressive motets, while others, like Giovanni Puerluigi da Palestrina, were more restrained. A similar contrast can be observed with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorales, rarely sung in USA churches, and 19th century traditional hymns that are the staple to most “traditional” Protestant worship. Even in the area of Contemporary Christian Music, there seem to be the heartfelt (and more and more neglected) choruses by Twila Paris and the Gaithers as opposed to the minimalist and utilitarian approach of Hillsong and Vineyard. How does a composer fit in and serve? In Holm’s case, I see both of these approaches at work.
Meditate on These Things has more of the dispassionate, cool style of Palestrina, which seems appropriate for the doctrinal texts from Philippians, James, Amos, and Romans that give instruction to believers. The entire motet never leaves the key of D major and acquires a modal flavor akin to the early 20th-century British composers by using secondary triads (ii, iii, vi) almost equally with the primary tonic, subdominant, and dominant triads. Also noteworthy are several half-diminished seventh chords on the leading tone (seventh step of the scale) that convey movement and progressive harmony and poignant moments in this simple effective setting. A church choir (alas, a dying medium of worship in the evangelical movement and also crippled by COVID-19) should be able to master this setting in two rehearsals. Paul’s words from Philippians 4:8 are beautifully set in the opening and closing sections. While the organ introduction tunes the choir’s entrance and accompanies it, it delicately launches the choir a cappella to close the motet on a lovely half cadence.
Having set Dag Hammarskjöld’s couplet “Yes” to music, I am well aware of how distilled and concentrated his few lines of poetry are and the enormous weight each word brings to his message. Hammarskjöld’s poems are on the surface secular, but often point toward holiness as expressed in the Bible, and both “Yes” and Holm’s selected poem, “Vägen,” are great examples. Consider the words of the latter, excerpted by Holm for Vägen:
The road, You shall follow it. The fun, You shall forget it. The cup, You shall empty it. The pain, You shall conceal it. The truth, You shall be told it. The end, You shall endure it.
While there is no direct reference to the Lord nor to Scripture, we encounter several allusions to the teachings or decisions of Jesus Christ: following the road, emptying the cup, telling the truth, enduring the end (as in His crucifixion). So it becomes possible to create either secular or sacred music with these as lyrics, as Holm elegantly accomplishes here. But I would suggest that she comes closer to Josquin’s passion than Palestrina’s detachment in her setting here. In short, Holm is a servant who answers the call in appropriate ways. The setting of four-part male chorus with a piano accompaniment invokes at least two 19th century German Romantic elements: the male chorus reminiscent of a hunting party enjoying and celebrating nature (as both Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann allude to in their art songs), and the barcarolle piano accompaniment such as Felix Mendelssohn uses in his Venetian Boat Songs. For a while Holm stays within G minor, but emphasizing the yearning qualities of the harmonic form. There’s a particularly poignant chord on “Kalken” as the third couplet begins, F#-Bb-C-Eb, that is straight out of G minor, but not a triad nor a seventh chord, that captures the agony of draining the cup, particularly as Christ did for us. This opens the gates to colorful harmony invoking Hugo Wolf’s augmented triads, Schubert’s modulations and beloved Neapolitan chords, and even quartal harmonies borne out of long-sustained suspensions. The diverse styles of these two choral works invite two different styles of worship and deserve performances in sacred and secular spaces. We look forward to the American Swedish Institute Male Chorus’s première of this latter work, with its warm and very singable sonorities for the divided tenor and bass choir. We also hope for churches and their choirs to be more open to new works such as Meditate on These Things (on a surprisingly rarely set, yet essential, text), especially as we recover from COVID-19. Unfortunately, these two works are not yet publicly available for listening, but you can contact Holm at http://holmlegacypublishing.com for more information. There is a fetching YouTube video of another of Holm’s choral compositions, Children of the Heavenly Father at http://holmlegacypublishing.com/original-compositions – scroll to the bottom of this page to hear this beautiful work for choir, woodwinds, horn, and strings.
In our next installment, we will examine the diverse music of Jerry Casey.