choral music - justice
January 9, 2024

Choral Music on the Theme of Justice

The church choir has many opportunities to take part in the liturgy and serve the congregation during worship services. While most singers agree that the choir offers to God “a sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15), choral music may also be used to give thanks, proclaim God’s Word, pray through word and music, teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16), bring a message of healing, and bless the congregation.

To extend the theme of justice on the 2023–2024 issues of Reformed Worship, I have chosen several pieces of choral music that speak about God’s creation, the diversity of human culture, and our need for God’s healing. These selections can be used in different segments of worship services such as gathering, praising and thanking God, confession and assurance, and at the Lord’s Table. I hope they will add variety to the choral music program of this season.

I am mindful that many church choirs these days have only about ten to fifteen singers (and likely with unbalanced voice parts). It could be challenging for choir directors to find choral music that is suitable for singers with limited music-reading and singing abilities. Therefore, the following selections are suitable for smaller church choirs. Meanwhile, these songs also offer a variety of styles, instrumental combinations, and emotions that can motivate your singers and enliven the music in your services.

"Rejoice and Sing"

Words and Music: Karen Marrolli
SATB choir, piano, optional soloist or youth choir
Morning Star, MSM-50-6379

Marrolli wrote these lyrics of hope and trust based on Psalm 30:11 and Zephaniah 3:14–17, 20. After two simple chords with open fifths and octaves, the main theme is introduced either by a soloist or a unison choir. With a range of a ninth (D4–E5), it would also be suitable for a youth choir. After the introduction, the choir sings the second theme “Rejoice, O Daughter Zion” in unison and then again in four-part harmony. As the verse repeats, the song builds its climax with slight changes in tempo and noticeable dynamics.

The theme of a just, strong, and loving God would be a fitting call to worship.

Teaching notes: The song is written in a duple meter. Although the metronome marking seems slow, be sure to keep the flow of the melody. Because of the frequent use of steps and perfect fourths in all four parts, this piece provides a great opportunity for the choir to build pitch awareness.

"All Creatures of Our God and King"

Words: St. Francis of Assisi
Music setting: Tim Sarsany
SATB choir, organ, optional congregation
Morning Star, MSM-60-2283

Sarsany’s setting of this familiar text by St. Francis of Assisi and tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN brings a sense of grandiosity as the song progresses. The emotion of the music pairs nicely with the lyrics all the way. The mood turns somber in stanza 6 (a verse seldom included in many hymnals) when the text “And you, most gentle sister death, waiting to hush our final breath” is interspersed with “alleluia!” This is a fitting song not only for praise but for environmental justice and whole-life worship.

Musically, the song opens with an organ introduction (full orchestral parts available from the publisher). Stanza 1 encourages the choir and congregation to sing in unison. From Stanza 2, the choir builds from unison singing to two-part, then four-part. The congregation joins in stanza 7 when the sopranos turn into a descant.

Teaching notes: The musical complexity grows in each stanza. In addition to key changes, the meter changes in stanza 5 where the familiar melodic line (sung by men) now pairs with flowing lines in the treble clef. While the choir sings in a cappella, encourage them to listen well and control the dynamic in order to “give and take” between the melody and the harmony.

"Healer of Our Every Ill"

Words and Music: Marty Haugen
Unison or two-part choir, piano, optional C instrument and guitar
GIA Music, G-3478

During the communal confession of injustice around the world and in our community, consider using the choir in between each section of prayer. “Healer of Our Every Ill” draws our attention to God who is the source of peace, hope, and love.

The song begins with a refrain which may be sung in unison or two-part, then engages different voice parts or soloists to sing the four verses that follow. Consider using a C instrument (such as a violin or a flute) to play the countermelody. Using a guitar for accompaniment is equally effective.

Teaching notes: While the melody is simple, I would encourage the choir to watch out for the major 6th leap (D to B) in the third measure of the refrain. The pitch can go flat easily when the leap is not followed by a return but goes on to the leading note (C♯) and tonic (D). Also, look for the sequences (similar rhythmic and interval patterns in the four-note phrase) in the verses—the first note of each phrase forms a downward scale of D–C♯–B–A–G–G–F♯–E. Phrasing and intonation are important.

"Diverse in Culture, Nation, and Race"

Words: Ruth Duck
Music: Irish tune, arranged by Mark Scozzafave
Two-part choir, assembly, optional C instrument, cello, and hand drum
GIA Music, G-10726

Ruth Duck is a well-known hymn writer. This text examines and celebrates our interconnectedness and our diversity. It ends with a prayer: “God, let us be a table spread with love and broken bread, where all find welcome, grace attends, and enemies arise as friends.” The song is equally suitable for the post-sermon response, the Lord’s Table, and the sending.

The song begins in a rather low key of E-flat. The melody hovers around the tonic E-flat with the lowest note of B-flat and the highest note of C. The key moves up to F in stanza 3 with a descant line sung by a solo or the soprano section. The highest note in the descant is an F. This range makes the song quite accessible for choirs and congregations with a limited range.

Teaching notes: Choir directors should feel free to assign the melody and the alto part to the choir parts based on their vocal range. The congregation may join in at the refrain each time. The descant in stanza 3 may be sung by a tenor or soprano voice. Stylistically, pay attention to the sixteenth notes that appear sporadically throughout the piece. These are ornaments often found in Irish singing. Keep these “twists” short and unaccented.

Dr. Kai Ton Chau is associate editor of Reformed Worship and resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He is a member and choir director at Blythefield Christian Reformed Church in Rockford, Michigan.