New project

I’ve been asked by organist Joe Arndt to write a motet for Grace Church Newark’s 175th Anniversary, celebrated on the Feast of Ascension (May 19 2012 at noon). The church has requested a setting of “Alleluia, Ascendit Deus,” a text most famously set by William Byrd. I’m keeping Byrd’s vocal divisi – SSATB (during his time, probably AATbB), but emending the text used in his version.

Instead of blending words from two psalms as Byrd did (fusspot that I am, I don’t like liturgical mixing and matching), I’m setting the verse below.

Ascendit Deus in iubilatione,
et Dominus in vocae tubae. Alleluia.
Dominus in caelo paravit sedem suam. Alleluia.

Psalm 46 (47): 5

God has ascended with jubilation,
and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. Alleluia.
The Lord has prepared his seat in heaven. Alleluia.

Once Copernicus got Westerners to realize that heaven might not be “up there,” and Sputnik gave us an even greater reality check, the Ascension of Christ has been one of the passages in the Bible that most vexes literal-minded readers.

I love what Anglican theologian N.T. Wright has to say about this. In the book The Resurrection of Jesus (coauthored as a dialogue with John Dominic Crossan), he rhetorically poses the “laws of physics” question about the Ascension. Wright doesn’t to dodge the issue. He responds that Christ didn’t need to ascend all the way to heaven to present a miracle to the disciples, he only needed to get past the first clouds to demonstrate a transfiguration!

A rebuttal such as this certainly helps an ecumenically minded composer to set to work. If all goes well, the music will reach that first layer of cumulus handily!

One thought on “New project

  1. The ascension of Jesus is further complicated by the differing accounts in the Gospels. The earliest versions of Mark do not mention the ascension – or even the resurrection – but later manuscripts of Mark do make a brief reference to Jesus being ‘taken up into heaven’. In Luke Jesus ascends from Bethany, near Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus is last heard from on a hill in Galilee, far to the north, but there is no specific account of an ascension. In the last chapter of John the risen Jesus mentions to Mary Magdalene that he will ascend ‘to my Father’, but there is no further description of the event. In Acts, Luke again describes the ascension itself but with a somewhat different purpose and perspective.

    I think the most effective telling is in Acts – the disciples are left looking upwards into the clouds and two angels are quoted: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” At that moment the work of the church was begun.

    So perhaps some sort of trailing off of the melody – followed by a familiar chorale – could be one way to finish your piece.

    Good luck!

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