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Experiencing "The Bitter Hour"

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; Halleluya with Christ the Lord Is Risen Today; Oh, to See the Dawn/The Power of the Cross

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
(arr. Kornelis)

There are some tunes that journey with us and attach themselves to our lives—songs we can’t get out of our heads.

One of those songs for me is a haunting melody by Benjamin Kornelis to the text of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Ben wrote this four-part a cappella anthem for our Calvin College choir back when we were both students. He went on to earn his doctorate and now teaches at Dordt College where his choirs have performed several of his compositions. This was a deeply personal piece for Ben, who wrote it in memory of his grandmother to honor her life and faith. The repeating final phrase, “demands my soul, my life, my all,” recalls the commitment that Ben saw in his grandmother and reminds the rest of us to respond to the gift of life that comes through “the wondrous cross.”

I realize that it might be an enormous risk to introduce a new tune to one of the most standard hymns of the season, but I urge you to listen and to try it. After all, hamburg wasn’t the original tune for these famous Isaac Watts lyrics. Tunes such as tombstone, st. lukes, and a variation of Tallis’ Canon first accompanied the text. With a simple metric pattern of 8.8.8.8, there are many tunes that can be used, though some fit better than others. In fact, Hymnody.org lists 14 different tunes that are published in hymnals with the text of “When I Survey.” One of my other favorite tunes is rockingham by Edward Miller, which I first learned with the text “What Shall I Render to the Lord?”

Here are many ways you might incorporate this new tune as a song of the season:

  • Use the choral version “as is” with your choir. You can order the anthem directly from the composer at Benjamin.Kornelis@dordt.edu. (Note that you will need healthy sopranos for the floating high notes.)
  • Use the solo melody line unaccompanied. Ask several vocalists to learn the melody, then reposition it in a key that suits them. Scatter the soloists around the room, even within the body of the congregation. You might also scatter the stanzas throughout a worship service, using this song as a thread to link the service pieces together.
  • Introduce the melody with flute, oboe, bassoon, recorder, or another simple instrument. Or recruit a young singer and an experienced soloist to first sing the melody before adding the full congregation.
  • Teach the melody and the final tag of stanza 4 to your choir. Have the choir sing with the congregation in unison, ending with choir alone on the repeated last line.

Halleluya with Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Easter morning dawns as God’s people gather in anticipation. They carry with them the somber reflections of the past weekend, remembering Christ’s suffering and death. But they do not grieve as those who have no hope. They know the rest of the story. They know that this morning they will be invited to celebrate with vibrant joy the resurrection and the promise of life.

The song “Halleluya” (#3 in Global Songs for Worship), originally from Zimbabwe, is a perfect beginning to an Easter worship service. Before the welcome, before people greet each other, give them the word that their hearts are yearning to shout: Hallelujah!

You can see just by looking at it that this is a simple, repetitive song, but it is rich with the texture of percussive instruments and layers of voices. The melodic movement is exciting, and the rich harmonies create a hospitable choral field where anyone can find a part to sing.

To get the full effect of this song on Easter, you will want as many people as possible to know it ahead of time. Teach it to your choir so there will be a group of people modeling the various parts. Tell choir members to sing it at home and teach it to their friends and families. Ask the youth group to learn it and teach it to the Sunday school. Consider singing it more simply on Palm Sunday at some point in the service.

The composer, Abraham Dumisani Maraire, was born in what is now Zimbabwe in southern Africa. He taught music in his homeland and at the University of Washington.

"Dumi," as he was called by his friends, was best known for creating notation for the uniquely African instruments made with a flattened metal keyboard attached to a wooden resonance board. Growing up in Nigeria, I called them "thumb pianos."

The most powerful songs of the season of Lent invite us to focus on the reality of the betrayal, blood, pain, and finality of Christ’s death.

As you might expect from the African origins of this song, it is driven by rhythm. Help singers to feel it in one big beat per measure rather than three choppy ones. Listen to this short clip to hear the layers of percussion instruments and notice the strong first beat of each measure: http://www.hymnary.org/media/fetch/91323.

You might have a great place for a joyful song like this at another spot in your service, but I’m imagining it as the processional into worship. It starts with a solo trumpet, adding a low brass, then a mid-instrument as the refrain is repeated. Then the choir sings in unison, two parts, and three parts. The congregation is invited to sing the refrain three times more before a soloist leads the stanza section. I’d consider using just stanza 1 for Easter and repeating it. Then return to the refrain, back to the stanza, and then the refrain again.

Just as everyone is breaking into dance, transition to the hymn "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" in B-flat by using the progression noted in the introduction.

You’ll note that the first two measures of the hymn feel pretty straight with the dotted quarters against the 6/8 time, but the "Hallelujah" rhythm is patterned after the stanza of the African song. Sing 3 stanzas of the hymn, then return to the refrain of "Halleluya" by a simple progression of B-flat/C to C7. Sing three times through the refrain, then move back to the hymn in the key of C with F/G to G7 movement. You can keep the 6/8 feel on this final stanza, or keep the tempo, but straighten out the Hallelujahs into a more classic style with 4/4 rhythm. It will help to add powerful support from brass and organ.

I’m convinced that your congregation will ask for this song again, so keep it handy. Use it to remind yourselves of the global church, sing it in the communion liturgy where you might otherwise sing or speak words of adoration and praise, sing it in response to an assurance of pardon, end a worship service with it. Once your congregation is comfortable with it, don’t be surprised if someone erupts with this "Halleluya" in response to a joyful announcement in your church.

Oh, to See the Dawn/The Power of the Cross

An execution is not pleasant to attend. Yet some of the most powerful songs of the season of Lent invite us to do exactly that—to focus on the reality of the betrayal, blood, pain, and finality of Christ’s death. While other seasonal songs tell us about the reason for Christ’s death or the impact of his sacrifice, keeping their distance from the horror of the actual events, songs like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Were You There?” and “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” invite us into Christ’s experience on the cross to “see from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” and to “watch with him one bitter hour, turn not from his griefs away.”

Choral ideas for the season:

  • Mark Hayes has written a moving arrangement of “The Power of the Cross,” which is published through Lorenz (product #10/3806L). Orchestral score and accompaniment CD are also available.
  • Lloyd Larsen has combined “The Power of the Cross” with another Getty song called “Gethsemane,” published with Hope Publishing Company, Code No. C 5744.
  • “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” SATB (Getty), Alfred Publishing Item: 00-29269, UPC: 038081316192; orchestral parts and accompaniment CD are also available.
  • “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” arr. Benjamin Kornelis. Contact the composer at Benjamin.Kornelis@dordt.edu.
  • “Resurrection (An Easter Medley)” by Craig Curry. Single trumpet part is included, optional organ and brass accompaniment are also available. Listen and order here: tinyurl.com/resurrectioncurry. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.19943).

Keith Getty and Stuart Townend follow this pattern in their hymn “Oh, to See the Dawn” (also known as “The Power of the Cross”). We are asked to imagine Christ dragging the cross through the streets, see him wince with pain, watch the drops of blood flow from his brow, feel the rumble of the earth, and look at ourselves through the lens of grace.

The fact that this song draws us so closely to the action is one reason why it has such a strong emotional impact on us when we hear it and sing it. Two musical features of the song also contribute to its ability to reach inside our hearts and minds:

  • Longer notes are paired with important words of the text. The simple chorus relies on sustained notes connected to the key words “power,” “cross,” and “us.” The song invites us to contemplate the gospel truth in a few words by holding those words and notes.
  • There is both tension and resolution of key chords. Notice how the stanza repeats the C2 resolving to C and the Gsus to G, inviting singers to press into and through the notes and words. Tension and resolution move us musically just as they do in other areas of our lives through a pattern of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

Another common method of maximizing the emotive impact of a song is to change key within the song. Typically, an upward movement invites singers to stand up straighter and sing more boldly, in part because instruments often increase their volume, but also because of some emotional cue in the musical movement from one key to another. Here are three places where “Oh, to See the Dawn” can benefit from an upward key change:

  • Between the refrain of stanza 3 and the beginning of stanza 4. If the vocal leaders are warned ahead of time, a “cold cut” key change awakens everyone to the new scene painted by stanza 4.
  • Between a stanza and refrain by moving from the Gsus to A7 (assuming you are in C). Note: Larry Visser has composed a strong descant for the chorus of stanza 4 in the key of C. To make best use of this, you will want to sing earlier stanzas in B-flat and move to C for the descant. You might also consider making the key change between stanza 3 and its chorus, rather than just before the descant of stanza 4.
  • Between measures 8 and 9 of either stanza 3 or stanza 4. No modulation is necessary; you can simply start playing in a new key. It works because the melody note of m8 in the lower key is the same as the melody note of m9 in the higher key.

None of us wants to abuse the integrity of the music or manipulate people’s emotions. So be thoughtful and balanced when playing a song with this much emotional potential. Avoid the double dangers of overplaying the emotion, creating a maudlin sentimentality, or underplaying it, rendering it bland and lifeless.

If this invitation to “come and see for yourself” engages your congregation on Good Friday, consider balancing it with “See, What a Morning,” also by Getty and Townend, for Easter morning.