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Music at Emmanuel - From Our Music Director, Fred McIlroy

Dear Friends,

For our first blog entry about music here at Emmanuel, I thought I might write a piece about just what goes into the music that you get to experience in just about every liturgy we celebrate. In this entry, you’ll find out how we go from planning to the service and where all of our musical materials come from. It’s a great journey that begins in the Spring prior to the program year that starts in September. This entry will speak in fairly broad terms but, in future, we will zero in on more specific details.


Music in worship is the servant of text. While we do use instrumental music in worship, much of the main point of music in church is to illuminate sacred texts. So even our instrumental music should have some form of relationship to the texts we are hearing at a given liturgy. Most of you will have noticed that we have two kinds of music in services here. First, there is the music that is the


same from Sunday to Sunday for a fairly long period of time. If you were to look in the Book of Common Prayer, you’d see that this music uses the texts of our worship that always remains the same from service to service. We usually change these texts and the corresponding music seasonally. The name we use in the church for these texts is the Ordinary of the service. In earlier times in the church, there was only one set of texts that could be used for these parts of the service and it never changed. However, many musical settings of that text were composed over thousands of years. We still use some of them today. The second kind of music that we use in worship is music that changes from service to service depending on the day. This is because we have texts in our worship that change from occasion to occasion. You see this in the readings from scripture that we hear each time we gather. The name we use for all of these texts is the Propers. Would you like to know a secret? Those of us who work on the parish staff don’t pick these readings ourselves. They come to us from something called a Lectionary which is a schedule of readings that have been approved by the clergy and lay deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Th


is Lectionary is used (and is required to be used) by each and every congregation and gathering in our wider church. It is connected, too, with the liturgical seasons we follow throughout the year: Advent, The Season After Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and The Season After Pentecost. For each Eucharist, the Lectionary appoints three items: the Collect of the Day, the Old Testament reading, the Psalm, the Epistle reading, and the Holy Gospel.


So how do we process all of those things to get to a Sunday service? For this article, I’m only going to talk about Propers. There is much reading of the Lectionary involved. In fact, I read every Collect and Lesson for every Sunday that I plan. After doing that, there will be a straight-forward and clear theme for every liturgy which has been determined by the liturgical season we’re in as well as the readings we’re hearing. From there I refer to my worship planning aids which are books of suggested hymns for a given Sunday. More about the sheer amount of hymns we have to choose from in another article! There are also traditions to consider. For some occasions, there are hymns and other music that would be very much missed if they weren’t included. How could we not have All Saints Day without “For all the saints” in the service? I also have to refer to our choir library-we currently have over one thousand titles in our library-to plan any music the choir will sing. I also refer to my organ music library. And from this great cloud of music we must narrow it down to four hymns, a psalm setting, and a choir anthem. How does that happen? I look for music that will contribute to making the service into something where everything is in harmony. Almost like a great sacred symphony where things sound like they were supposed to be together. Or if a more disjointed feel is what is called for, to m


ake that be an intentional thing so that there’s no mistaking what we’re trying to do. That’s for the aesthetic of the service partially but there are also practical reasons for it. For example: you’ll probably notice that on any given Sunday, the music tends to lay at about the same place in pitch. That’s because we always try to have music in nearly-related keys to make it easier to hear for congregational singing. The instrumental music for our services and the music for the Ordinary influences this too. Especially the Ordinary because it never changes from week to week.


All this planning goes on from June to July so that, by the end of Summer, every Sunday liturgy along with the music for other feasts of the church year is selected and ready to be printed in the bulletin and used in worship. Do we make small adjustments along the way? Yes! But it’s a lot less work than starting from the ground up each week or even each month. Not being able to plan this way during the pandemic taught me that one!




I look forward to telling you all more about music for the church! Future articles are going to be about things such as the Ordinary music we use, the seven different books that make up our hymnal, and chant for the church. But my next article, and one that is about three years overdue, will be a piece about something that has now been at Emmanuel for fifty-two years: Our great Beckerath Organ.


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