Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Walk Into History

“To walk into history is to be free at once, to be at large among people.”
This quote from Irish-born author Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) has been on my mind in the past few weeks. Recently, I posted news about Rick Coffey's new book, A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church. It was my privilege to provide some editorial and research assistance to Rick as he brought his sabbatical research to fruition by putting into words the remarkable story of the music ministry at South Church. Though the books may be printed (sales are moving ahead nicely) and the research done (well, there are always new treasures to be uncovered, aren’t there?), the project stays very much alive in my heart and mind.
Having worked on every word of the book through seven drafts, I naturally developed a fairly good knowledge of the people, events, architecture, pipe organs, and artistry that have distinguished this music ministry over the two centuries of its existence. It seems inevitable that this new-found knowledge must forever infuse and inform all my musical experiences at South Church. Here's an example of how this affects my thinking:
When the Chancel Choir at South Church (in which I am a section leader) receives new music, I naturally check the origins of the texts and music, noting the dates and any other historical details. This sort of information has always been of interest to me as a matter of musical and intellectual curiosity (and of course, in support of my professional work as a program annotator). Now, however, I find that I am intensely interested in how our choral and congregational repertoire fits into the history of music at South Church.
For example, a few weeks ago, the choir sang as an introit the hymn “Near to the Heart of God,” composed just after the turn of the 20th century by Cleland B. McAfee (1866-1944) (Chalice Hymnal, No. 581). McAfee (shown at left), grieving at the death of his two nieces from diphtheria, wrote the words and music to comfort himself and his family. Though stories of this hymn’s provenance vary — 1901 or 1903? Missouri or Chicago? First sung by McAfee’s choir outside the quarantined house, or by McAfee himself at the funeral? — it quickly became popular and was sung in churches across the country.
As we rehearsed “Near to the Heart of God” a few weeks ago, I wondered when this music might have first been heard at South Church and how the congregation might have reacted to it.

The minister of music at South Church during this period was the brilliant Richmond Peck Paine (1858-1938), a prominent and much-loved figure in the Hartford musical scene, “highly revered and much in demand as a conductor.” One imagines that during his tenure at South Church (1885-1905), this innovative and modern-thinking leader would have sought out new music of quality for his talented choir and the discerning South Church congregation. Perhaps Mr. Paine (shown at right) read of the new hymn or heard it sung at a neighboring church, or perhaps a parishioner brought it to his attention. We may never know (although the addictive nature of archival research may someday bring this information to light).
Though the music of this sweet and gentle hymn sounds “old” to us now, and invokes a sense of nostalgia in us more than a century later, it would have been entirely new to Mr. Paine’s choir and congregation. Did they know the story behind the words? Did Mr. Paine have to use gentle persuasion to convince reluctant choristers or congregants that “new” hymns could be just as beautiful and satisfying as the old familiar tunes? (Some things never change.)
This speculation — discerning the origins of the choral and congregational repertoires and endeavoring to understand them in the context of this church’s music history — seizes my imagination during every choir rehearsal and service. It’s an endlessly fascinating endeavor.
Orders and Information
TITLE: A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church
AUTHOR: Richard M. Coffey
PUBLISHER: South Church, New Britain, Connecticut, September, 2008
PRICE: Price: $19.00 per copy ($15.00 plus $4.00 shipping/handling)
FORMAT: Paperbound, 261 pages, 54 photographs and illustrations, index, 8” x 11” format
TO ORDER: Send a letter of request and a check for $19.00 (made out to “South Church” with “Memorial Fund” in the memo line) to:
Nancy Hemstreet Eaton, Music Ministry Administrator
South Congregational-First Baptist Church
90 Main Street, New Britain, CT 06051
PHONE 860-223-3691, ext. 154
FAX 860-827-8681

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