From The Loft: The Worship Of All Souls Day
with Director of Music and Organist Jonathan Ryan
Music can reach us in ways words cannot.
Music can also give voice to things inside us words cannot express. These are among the many reasons I’m very much looking forward to a new development in our liturgy and music this fall: our All Souls Evensong on Sunday, November 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the church.
The liturgical calendar in the Book of Common Prayer designates two separate days for All Saints' and All Souls: November 1 and 2, respectively. Our own Rev. Greg Pickens has written more about the historical development of these days in his article. Many Episcopal churches essentially combine All Saints' and All Souls into a single day. I’m delighted that here at Saint Michael we are able, partly due to the progress and dedication of the Saint Michael Choir, to commemorate these two liturgical days in separate services. The music for these two “days” will itself evoke their distinct essence.
All Saints' will remain the same with one exception: we will read the necrology at the All Souls Evensong instead of our morning services. That means for the first Sunday of November, all our morning services will (still) observe All Saints' Day with the full festivity that feast rightly deserves. Our 11 a.m. service in the church will particularly see a heightened liturgical celebration with incense, hymn arrangements incorporating brass and timpani, and more choral music than usual, including a jubilant setting of the service music (e.g. Sanctus, Agnus Dei) by Mozart for choir, soloists, and orchestra. Our 9 a.m. service in the church will feature our choristers and staff singers singing a beautiful All Saints' Offertory anthem and a trumpeter embellishing the hymns. All Saints' has sometimes been regarded as a kind of parallel to Easter Day. Its placement in the calendar is almost half a year from Easter Day, and its theological emphasis very much includes eternal life and heaven.
What is new is our commemoration of All Souls Day. Our November monthly Evensong will observe All Souls Day, thus allowing us to have All Saints' in the morning and All Souls in the evening of the first Sunday of November. The All Souls Evensong will be our annual parish-wide remembrance of those who have gone before us, especially those who have passed away in the last year. Anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one is especially invited to this service designed for them. Not only will we read the necrology, we will have a moment for those attending to remember their loved one in a particular way.
A good bit of time has been spent selecting music for the All Souls Evensong. First, because much of the choral music for this service is unaccompanied and we will not have Communion or need the Communion Rail, we can place the choir in the front of the church in a Divine Office seating arrangement using our new, movable English cathedral style choir desks.
Contemporary American Episcopal church musician and composer Robert Lehman, who serves as Organist/Choirmaster at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, MO, wrote the choral Preces and Responses we’ll use. These are choral settings of single sentence prayers for Evening Prayer which dialogue between the officiant and choir (who, in Evensong, sing the responses on behalf of the congregation). His setting importantly gives modern day insight and vocalization to our prayer. The anthem, Bring us O Lord God by 20th-century English composer William Harris, sets a brief yet profound poetic prayer by John Donne to gorgeous harmonies, inspired climaxes, and thoughtful insight.
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for this service warrant some background. They will be from the Gloucester Service by 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells. Howells grew up near Gloucester, loved the rolling Gloucestershire countryside, and experienced one of the worst traumas a parent can experience while on a family vacation in Gloucestershire in 1935: his nine-year old son, Michael, unexpectedly developed polio and died 3 days later. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Howells’ Evensong canticles, written for the cathedral where that tragic vacation took place just a few years after Howells recovered sufficiently to resume composing, have a particular poignancy about them. Further, Howells took organ lessons at Gloucester Cathedral as a teenager, and his son Michael is buried nearby – so much of his life is in this place.
I suggest to you that maybe Howells found expression, solace, and inspiration in this music we will hear. The text of these two Gospel canticles, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, come from Mary and Simeon during events surrounding Jesus’ birth. By hearing them sung at our Evensong, especially with the composition described above by Howells, liturgical music will richly connect our remembering, grief, and hope with Christ’s incarnation— incarnation, meaning the embracing of humanity which meant that Christ himself experienced suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Lastly, we will have a special opportunity to remember a loved one following the reading of the necrology and the preceding Nunc Dimittis by Howells: those at this service will be invited to light a candle in memory of their loved one, walk through the choir singing in the chancel, and place that candle on the altar. This can symbolize many things: entrusting our loved one to God; letting go of him or her; allowing our loved one to bring us closer to God; the list goes on.
It will be a powerful moment. During this time, the choir will sing assuring words from Scripture with unaccompanied, chant-like (i.e. speech-like) choral music by recently deceased American Episcopal priest, organist, and composer David Charles Walker.
While of course all are welcome and invited to our new All Souls Evensong, I hope that if you or anyone you know has experienced the loss of a loved one, you will put Sunday, November 3 at 5:30 p.m. on your calendar and spread the word! This will be a beautiful, moving occasion when liturgy, music, and Scripture come together to offer us comfort, express our grief, and inspire our faith.
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