Saturday, June 22, 2019

Beautiful Star of Bethlehem -- Adger M. Pace


He had written so many songs by the time the words came for another song in 1940, that he really didn’t need a special time of the year to spur the words for this one. And yet, the poetry he crafted indicates that Adger McDavid Pace was thinking about a Christmas theme when he penned “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”. This 58-year old teacher, performer, writer, and editor was probably somewhere near or at his home in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee (in southern Tennessee, see map) in that year, though in his mind he was far from there. Gazing at the sky, as shepherds did nearly two millennia previously, Adger was helping direct the attention of others to see an undimmed star in a faraway place. Shine on, he called out.

Adger M. Pace had likely written many hundreds, or even thousands of songs by the time 1940 arrived, and ‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem’ was one more that illustrated where his life’s work had been spent and what road he would continue to travel. He reportedly wrote or co-wrote some 4,000 songs in the Southern gospel tradition, a brand of music that emphasized the four-part male harmony that Pace and the Vaughan Publishing Company helped popularize in the early 20th Century. Adger began his musical career as the editor for the company, but also performed on the radio and taught at the company’s school, all in Lawrenceburg. What circumstances transpired in 1940 that prompted his thoughts about the star over Bethlehem is not clear, but given what we know of Adger, it’s not difficult to imagine why he took up his pen yet again. It was Christmas, or perhaps he was looking forward to that time of year, and his musical juices flowed to generate a song for the four-part harmony with which he was so familiar. Perhaps many of his acquaintances thought the best work of this 58-year old was in the past, but this new song became one of his most recognized when people reflected on his life later on. Adger drew upon the wise men and the Christ-child’s nativity scene (v.1) in the ancient village in Judea to relate his musical version of this well-known Christmas story. But, he must have wanted to broaden the impact of the story, if we can surmise something more from what he wrote. He suggests that the ‘beautiful star’ can encompass more than the holiday season, something we can infer from his words ‘Shine on’, which are a refrain in each of his verses. Was it something that Adger noted in his own corner of the world that made him focus on this thought poetically and musically? Did Pace believe that the influence of Christ was too distant at other times of the year? Is it mere speculation, or is it true that more of our world could profit spiritually if the star shone brighter – or, instead, if we all looked more intently at it – throughout a calendar year?

Adger Pace spent his life teaching, writing, singing, and leading people to see what he saw. And so, he didn’t deviate from that when it came to the holiday season. ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’, someone says, a phrase that Adger would have undoubtedly embraced. He just seems to say that the ‘season’ doesn’t end on December 26th. Can you see the star that Adger saw, on this June day, when we’re pretty far distant from the Christmas season? Adger might say it’s always Christmas time.      

See the following link for biography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adger_M._Pace


And here for reference to author and a few of the songs attributed to him: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/p/a/c/e/pace_am.htm 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Silent Night! Holy Night! -- Joseph Mohr


A parish priest asked a schoolteacher and organist in a nearby town to put his poem to music at Christmastime in 1818 in Austria, and that’s the very briefest way to tell the story of “Silent Night! Holy Night!” A broken organ, ironically, also played a part in how Joseph Mohr decided to craft a new song for the season. And, not to be left out of the story, the organ repairman should also get his share of credit for spreading this simple new song, which needed little or no musical accompaniment from an organ, throughout the mountains of the central European country where it originated (see the coat of arms here of Oberndorf, where the author and composer first performed the song). Perhaps the three men were struck by the pure nature of the song’s historical setting – Bethlehem – and how unadorned was the earthly entrance of One so special. He needs no fanfare, though He deserves everyone’s attention.

The 26-year old Joseph Mohr had been serving at the mountain village church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf (in far northwestern Austria) only about a year, reportedly, when he discovered that the organ that he desperately needed in just a few days for the Christmas Eve service was out of commission. How could a proper worship on so special an occasion take place with no musical accompaniment? It is notable that the song-poem that Joseph had first written some two years earlier while in Mariafarr (in central Austria), before he was even ordained into the priesthood, became the vehicle for this priest’s epiphany in his moment of need. With no organ, but just a guitar available, he asked his friend and local schoolmaster-organist Franz Gruber if he could write some easy music for the words he already had on hand. The fusion of Mohr’s words and Gruber’s music needed little else to become a resonant voice that Christmas of 1818. Yet, the organ repairman, Karl Maurachen who showed up a few days later, gave the song legs outside of that small mountain village, when he took the Mohr-Gruber invention and introduced it to the Tyrol region of the country (western Austria). Since that time, the song has travelled throughout the world, though each year its inception, and the Christ-child whom it magnifies, are celebrated where it was first vocalized, on the site of the small Oberndorf St. Nicholas church. Perhaps that small setting, or one like it in Mariafarr where its words were actually written, prompted the poetry that Mohr penned. A small, seemingly insignificant spot on the globe, high in the mountains and quite remote to most people, allows the attentive believer to calm the spirit and gaze at Him. Is that what Joseph and Franz and Karl all experienced, a silent, pretty special – holy – moment, just to look at his radiant beams (v.3), imagine the shepherds (v.2) and angels (v.4), and of course the mother and this most unusual babe (v.1)? No organ, and no other instrument needed, just the heart of the stilled believer.      

Who isn’t moved each year when Joseph Mohr’s words are sung once again? Get into the moment, and look at the faces around, perhaps lit only by a candle flame. That’s likely all that Joseph and Franz had available in 1818 to provide any light, that and maybe some stars or a moon above. It must have struck those fellows in the 19th Century that removing some of the familiar musical trappings of Christmas, like their organ, actually improved the experience that they’d tried to steer on previous occasions. Take away the encumbrances, and what is left? My creator and me. That will be enough, someday. Christmas is when I can remind myself of that, thanks to a silent night.

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/s/i/l/silnight.htm

Also see this site for song information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night
See this site for details on the place where the song made its premier: http://www.oberndorf.co.at/museum/StilleNacht/defaultgb.htm

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Angels We Have Heard On High – Anonymous or James Chadwick


The writer tried to walk in somebody else’s shoes, is one way of elaborating on the method he or she used to write this song. Put yourself in the place of some shepherds from long ago, and think how they might have said “Angels We Have Heard On High”, as they related the biblical account of the Christ-child’s birth. It was a Frenchmen who may have crafted the original words, but the words English-speaking peoples would recognize today arrived via a Catholic priest, James Chadwick, who was in Britain in the mid-1800s. The scenes of this divine event that this bishop has to share are those of another writer whom you and I might recognize too, someone who’s been around for a while.

Chadwick was undoubtedly thinking of the events that the biblical writer Luke related in his second chapter, and it’s no stretch to say he and the original French artist were mulling over these events during the Christmas season. The scenes drawn in the four stanzas include angels singing to coax shepherds toward Bethlehem in a joyous celebration of His arrival, even if it was in a humble manger-crib. That’s the gist of what Luke wanted to say, versus what Matthew shared about the same event that has us see this bit of history through the eyes of the Magi (wise men) from the East. Was there some significance in that the 49-year old English- Catholic bishop James Chadwick, and his French poet-counterpart, focused on the shepherd’s story of this miraculous event, instead of the Magi one? Did they somehow want the Christmas celebrants to see this occasion through a more ‘common’ viewpoint – the shepherds? Perhaps it was the harrowing, malevolent parts of Matthew’s version, with an escape from Herod’s capture, that these poets wanted to avoid. Instead, let us be free to marvel at God’s rather meek arrival, and yet exclaim the wonder of His purpose here: to save us. Listen to the angels proclaim the stunning news. It’s a bit different than the alternative that Matthew offers, in which we cringe at the flight the parents of the Messiah-child are forced to make, and the bit of subterfuge in which the wise men engage to fool the evil Herod. Those shepherds were free to be awestruck by God’s presence, rather than to feel anxious about the security of the situation. Christmas is a time for peace and wonder, not foreboding. That’s Luke’s message, and what these poets seem to want to convey, too.   

Gloria, in Excelsis Deo. Do we understand what we sing there, what the angels first said on that starry night? Literally, it’s ‘glory to God in the highest’. Ironic, isn’t it, that we sing that while visualizing Him in a humble manger! It’s just as amazing that He descended to us, so that we can relate to Him in this way. A most unusual God, this babe that some of us think about only at Christmas. Was it different for the French poet who wrote this, or for James Chadwick as he translated the poem into English, and has it changed since their days? The ‘Excelsis Deo’ is also the ‘Sui Generis Deo’ – unique God. No others like Him. Are you listening to the angels today?     

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.