I love to tell the story

Classical revival splendor

Classical revival splendor

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The First Baptist Church of Omaha, Nebraska, perches at the top of a small hill at the corner of Harney and Park in a kind of neo-classical revival splendor. I don’t know enough about architecture to describe it adequately, so you will have to figure it out for yourself.

Perhaps the building’s most remarkable characteristic is survival.

Interstate 480 cuts a swath through downtown Omaha that’s a near miss for the building. Perhaps the route was carefully chosen to miss the church and other important buildings in the city. The church’s website says the church has been in its present location since 1904 when the current building was constructed.

The church’s organ is (my goodness! I hope it’s still there) a giant 4-keyboard Austin tubular-pneumatic beast with three divisions spread across the front of the church, and a solo division (complete with tuba mirabilis, as loud a reed stop as an organ ever ought to have).  I know the building was built in 1904 because between 1960 and 1963 I sat for countless hours staring at the nameplate on the organ console, “Austin Organs, opus __, 1904). I don’t remember the opus number, but I would guess it was at the time Austin’s crowning achievement. Its preservation should have been a concern of the Organ Historical Society.

During high school, nearly every day after school I took the twenty-minute walk from Central High School at 20th and Dodge up the hill to the church to practice the organ. Roger Wischmeier, organist of the church, was my teacher. My parents were members of the church, so the church allowed me to practice there.

When I was a senior in high school, I played my first real organ recital on the Austin. I remember a few details of the program.

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

The most important of those details is that I played the Bach “Gigue” Fugue in G major from memory. At the time I had a girlfriend (didn’t every gay boy in the world in 1963?). She had a man’s name, as did her older sister. Their father was a Bach aficionado, and he raved about my playing, which pleased me more even than my teacher’s praise. My playing of the Bach went on to bless (or curse) me. When I went to college, fully expecting to be an English major so I could write (what else?), I auditioned for the music faculty because I wanted to take organ lessons for fun. I played the fugue from memory, and Dr. Spelman offered me a scholarship as an organ major on the spot. What defense did I have against such recognition?

Back to my high school recital. I also played three chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, at that time and for many years thereafter the music director of the Billy Graham Crusade. His music was favored by my teacher, and he assigned me much of Hustad’s music to learn. Hustad, was a formidable musician and musicologist. For years after high school I dismissed him because of his connection with Billy Graham, but have come to my senses as an old man and understand not only his solid and inspired compositional ability but also his contribution to understanding the history of Evangelical music in the United States.

The three preludes I played on that program were on the tunes of the hymns “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

I am grateful that I still have the (bedraggled) book of preludes from which I learned those pieces—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance notes in them.

As organist in Lutheran churches, I discovered the usefulness of many of Hustad’s compositions. He seems to have had an affinity for Scandinavian Lutheran hymn tunes. The “national anthem” of Swedish-American Lutherans is “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Over the years I have used that Hustad prelude many times.

I’m now headed for Sweden (five days and counting). I will be playing several organs in Scandinavia. The choir I will accompany (Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas) will sing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and I will introduce it with the Hustad setting. Fifty years of my life will come full circle.

I will also play a setting of “I Love to tell the Story,” but one I have recently learned, by Emma Lou Diemer, Professor Emeritus of Composition at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I won’t try to wax eloquent about the importance both to my musical development and to my sanity of these hymn tunes and music I learned practicing at the First Baptist Church of Omaha. I will say only that in my (nearly life-long) confusion-bordering-on-apostasy about religious matters, this music is the constant, I could even say the anchor, of my life.

Donald Hustad’s “Children of the Heavenly Father” played on my small practice organ, recorded with a tiny digital camera.

“Is it odd, or is it God?”*

(*A question heard in a twelve-step meeting.)

The Swedish Lutheran poet

The Swedish Lutheran poet

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If you’ve been reading my postings, you know I’m getting ready to hustle off to Oslo (and points east, ending in St. Petersburg) with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I’m going as accompanist (mostly organ, some piano), not as a singer. After 15 years of smoking—I quit in 1979—and 20 or so years of drinking way too much (mostly vodka, 90-proof)—I stopped in 1986—and now not seriously singing for many years, I make pretty awful sounds when I try to sing outside a range of about five notes.

At times during our performances I will be expected to play organ music. This may sound a bit over-the-top sentimental (it is not), but when we are in Sweden, we will be prepared to sing a hymn known to all Lutherans in the United States and presumably in Sweden, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the words by Lina Sandell, and the tune a Swedish folk tune arranged by Os­kar Ahn­felt. The English translation of the first stanza is

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given
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The Swedish original is

Tryggare kan ingen vara,
Än Guds lilla barnaskara,
Stjärnan ej på himlafästet,
Fågeln ej i kända nästet
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Viktor Anderson, the director of the Calvary Lutheran choir, and I decided I should play a chorale prelude on the tune before the choir sings it—and we invite the audiences in Sweden to sing along. We decided that because I told him I have in my repertory a lovely organ setting of the tune.

Thinking about the hymn, I had in my mind’s ear the beginning of that chorale prelude (a chorale prelude is an arrangement of hymn tune as a solo work, usually for organ). As a matter of fact, with my vodka-tenor croaky voice in private, I could sing through the first section of the prelude. I knew I was not making it up.

The American composer

The American composer

When I got out the score of the collection of pieces I thought it was from, I was (mildly) horrified to discover it was not there. I could not for the life of me remember the composer or where the piece might be filed in my apartment. I fretted over the dilemma for three or four days, not wanting to tell Viktor I had imagined the music.

The last few days, I have been in a divestiture mode—that is, sorting and pitching stuff from my computer room which has essentially become my attic. Several boxes of stuff have been there since 2004 when I hurriedly moved in.  Sorting one of those boxes of (mainly) old photographs, I was pitching all that were of scenery I had forgotten or of people I did not recognize. I came to the last layer in the box, having thrown away most of its contents, and on the bottom was a single volume of organ music.

It is a collection of chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, for many years the organist of the Billy Graham campaigns whose work as musicologist and theorist of Evangelical worship is of the highest importance. The third of the preludes in the collection is the setting of “Children of the Heavenly Father” I had been singing to myself for a week.

The volume has performance markings from my high school organ teacher. I learned it in 1962. I am not sure I’ve ever played it since then.

Yesterday afternoon I was depressed. If you have to ask about what, you obviously don’t understand depression. I was about to indulge myself doing something that would have made me feel worse. My phone rang. It was a friend who had just received from an academic journal a rejection letter for an article he had submitted. He was having trouble working through his disappointment, so he called me. Our conversation helped him decide what to do that would be constructive rather than giving in to some indulgent behavior to mask his hurt. When we ended our conversation, I went to the organ and practiced for two hours—the one thing that will always lessen, if not lift completely, my depression. I know that absolutely, but when I’m depressed, I forget.

Some of my best friends would say these things are “God deals.” That is, God arranged them. If I believed in God, I’d be surprised if God didn’t have better things to do than serendipitously show me where an old piece of music is hiding, or prompt a friend to call me to find some solace for exactly what I need to talk to him—or someone—about.

But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

The heavenly father?

The heavenly father?