Music Notes | Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

The Gradual Psalm appointed for this Sunday is 146, which the shapers of our lectionary chose to accompany two healing accounts in Sunday’s Gospel portion. The Prayer Book translation of the psalm, as usual, will be sung with an appropriate antiphon after the first Lesson. Part of a paraphrase of this psalm, ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath’, is found at Hymn 429 (see the notes for February 7 of this year for much more on this hymn), and this will serve as the opening hymn at 11:15. The tune used for this hymn, which English speakers usually call ‘Old 113th’, also forms the basis of three other pieces to be heard on Sunday.

Two of these, for organ, stem from the German Lutheran tradition, where this tune was most often used for the text ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß’ (O mortal, bewail your great sin). The Prelude at 11:15 comes from a set of tablature manuscripts of 17th-century North German provenance, with the composer identified only by the initials M.W.C.B.M. As the inscription says, it is written for two manuals (keyboards), with the chant decorated; that is, after the accompanying voices enter one by one, quoting the opening motif of the tune, the melody is heard entire in the treble, with its pitches sounding on the correct beats but with many faster ornamental figures sounding in between. The Postlude at both 9:00 and 11:15 has in the past been attributed to J.S. Bach, but its style is more typical of Johann Pachelbel or his circle. In this setting, after the standard imitative entries of the accompanimental voices, the melody is heard in the bass voice, played on the pedals of the organ, while those other two voices continue in a sort of playful dialogue creating nearly constant sixteenth-note motion. 

‘Old 113th’ also forms part of the Calvinist stream of metrical paraphrases of psalms, whence it comes to the English-speaking world. Elaborate polyphonic settings of the Genevan Psalter tunes are not as plentiful as the very rich stream of Lutheran music – partly because elaborated music, even music in simple harmony, was not used in Calvinist services for a long time after the Reformation, and such polyphony as exists was used in other settings – and almost all of this literature comes from French and Dutch composers. A rare exception is a psalter published in Edinburgh in 1635, which contains a few settings of Genevan Psalm-tunes ‘in reports’ – that is, with imitative entries and other contrapuntal writing. The 11:15 Offertory this Sunday consists of the simple and contrapuntal settings of ‘Old 113th’ from this publication, the melody (as was then common) in the tenor voice, with our Hymnal text ‘I’ll praise my Maker’ applied. 

The theme of healing is also picked up in the Communion anthem, which is a  chant proper to another Sunday which features a healing story –

Many who were sickly and were being troubled by unclean spirits were coming to Jesus: for power was going forth from him, and he healed all of them. 

Luke 6.17–19

– as well as in the Postcommunion hymn, ‘Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old’ [567, also covered in the aforementioned notes for Feburary 7].

The Epistle portion, though part of its own series not intended to relate to the Gospel, nevertheless forms a crucial corollary to Psalm 146. The LORD, says our psalmist, gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, frees prisoners, restores sight, lifts up the burdened, cares for the stranger, sustains those in need. St James challenges us in no uncertain terms to do precisely, literally, the same. If we show partiality to the rich (thus idolizing our oppressors, James perceptively notes – many of us no doubt also forming part of that class and, however unwittingly, demonstrating that behavior ourselves), then we dishonor God’s beloved poor, whereas we are called instead to emulate the one who is rich in mercy and blessings, and to meet the needs of our kindred. Our situation in downtown Austin gives us ample opportunity to take up this challenge: every one of us will pass ‘a poor person in dirty clothes’ on our way in the door, and (we pray) some such persons will even come in to our assembly, as in the vivid scene which James describes. As another hymn to be sung Sunday, ‘When Christ was lifted from the earth’ [603], says, ‘may [we] in Christ be free / to welcome and accept [Christ’s] own / as Christ accepted [us]’. 

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