Your Will Will Be Done

I’m working on a new composition, a setting of The Lord’s Prayer for slovenly pirates and bellicose ne’er-do-wells. Or, I guess they just go by “Men’s Chorale”, but you get my point.

The Lord’s Prayers (the Matthew version, which all the cool kid use) is traditionally understood as 7 petitions:

“Our Father, who is in heaven,

  1. Make holy your name,
  2. Bring your kingdom,
  3. Manifest your will on earth, as in heaven,
  4. Give us our daily bread,
  5. Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors,
  6. Do not lead us into temptation,
  7. Deliver us from the Evil One.”

In writing this piece, I’ve been thinking about the theological implications of composition. I know, I know, make fun of me later. For now, just smirk to yourselves and read on.

I’m working out the 3rd petition in the piece right now, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is no great mystery to the songwriters in the crowd, but that phrase can be sliced and diced and setup across the music in dozens of ways, and each one shifts the weight around on the ideas contained in the phrase. The words are the words, and they carry their own meaning, but the shades of emphasis are mine to play with.

If I make your a pickup, and land the word will on the downbeat, the emphasis moves. If I shift the phrase over, and begin with your on the downbeat, again, the emphasis moves.

When Albert Malotte write his well-known setting of the piece, he chose to put a strong divide between be done and on earth. I think that one choice has made a permanent shift in how most English-speaking people understand the prayer. Malotte made “on earth as it is in heaven” a descriptive supplement to “thy will be done.” In his rendering, there is almost an implied “(so that it will be) on earth as it is in heaven.” It makes the petition wistful, almost mournful.

Matthew’s greek text does not have that same grouping. It places the break (as nearly as we can tell; this kind of thing is always a bit subjective) between on earth and as in heaven. With that reading, the emphasis is on the present, immediate manifestation of God’s will, here, now, on earth, in this place. It’s not a far off vision of some future transformation, it’s a call to arms for the establishment of the Kingdom (in line with the first 2 petitions).

I’m sensing, as I write this piece, the power of setting words to music. There is actually the ability to shift theological meaning in the mind of the listener, and the performer, based on choices we assume are merely aesthetic.

It’s the mind of the performer that’s been heavily on my own mind as I write this piece. This is not a pretty piece of music. It’s an epic, Fortissimo! final judgment, second coming kind of piece. It emphasizes the prayer as an eschatalogical petition, a subversive rendering of the Hebrew Kaddish to invoke the overthrowing of the world, and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. It’s a call to arms.

The men’s chorale that will be performing it has a special place in my heart. The conductor has made it a workshop for turning awkward boys into godly men. They come in, adrift and insecure, cut loose from family and friends and home church, and are thrown together on campus with 10,000 people they don’t know. Men’s Chorale becomes a band of brothers, a sanctuary, and a training ground for how to grow up into a man. The way they sing reflects that.

When I finish this piece, I will hand it over to them, and they will learn it. Any given audience will hear it once, but they will sing it dozens of times, they will memorize it and perform it with passionate intensity. The meaning of the words will not be lost on them – I talk to these men frequently, and they are thoughtful and articulate. They chew on things.

As I spill ink on this new composition, I’m very aware of my obligation to these men, to take care for the ideas I hand over to their repetition and consideration.

3 thoughts on “Your Will Will Be Done

  1. Gretchen

    I can’t wait to hear it babe.
    This seems like a good topic for your ethics class in the Fall. How the placement or emphasis on words taken from scripture change or alter the interpretation of it, and it’s implications on the listener as well as the performer.

  2. june

    I agree! (With Gretchen.) I believe that arrangers/writers have an obligation to, as you have done, study the original text when arranging Scripture set to music. I have thought about the very thing you described (variance of meaning resulting from phrasing and emphasis) while singing The Lord’s Prayer. It’s not that I’m so noble or insightful I don’t think, it’s just that the Wesleyan-affiliated college I attended had a custom of singing The Lord’s Prayer soooooooo slowly, that it gave a body plenty of time to muse on a variety of topics while singing. I remember even whispering different versions of it to myself, playing around with the phrasing and tone to change the meaning while all the good John Wesley lovers around me droned ooooooooooon.

    And Mike, you should tell Azusa’s publications department that they could save a bundle on the cost of producing viewbooks. This paragraph of yours seals the deal for this mother of two boys: “The men’s chorale that will be performing it has a special place in my heart. The conductor has made it a workshop for turning awkward boys into godly men. They come in, adrift and insecure, cut loose from family and friends and home church, and are thrown together on campus with 10,000 people they don’t know. Men’s Chorale becomes a band of brothers, a sanctuary, and a training ground for how to grow up into a man. The way they sing reflects that.” Point me to the admissions office now! (You’re staying at APU until my littles are there, right?!)

  3. Eric

    I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to read the musings of a composer of contemporary worship music on text setting. I’m irked when songwriters accent the wrong syLAble, but what you’re describing is beyond mere text-setting or word-painting – it’s musical rhetoric.

    From about the 16th to well into the 19h century, European composers had a particular awareness of the relationship between music and speech on many different levels, including the power of musical shapes, gestures, figures, etc. to ‘move the passions’ of the listener, essentially the goal of Classical spoken oratory and rhetoric. Even instrumental compositions were conceived in terms of presenting a thesis, constructing an argument through explanation and elaboration, offering and refuting counter-arguments, and summation. Vocal music, however, is especially closely allied with rhetorical illustration. It’s more than just just overt text-painting. All the concepts of Classical rhetoric, like repetition for emphasis, contrasting ideas, etc. are used to add another level of meaning to the text.

    I grew up in NC, and in some of the rural churches, especially the black churches, you can still hear “embroidered” versions of the Lord’s Prayer. I can’t replicate it, but each clause is elaborated extemporaneously and the meaning savored and meditated upon: “Our Father, Abba, Daddy, Lord of all creation and father of all…” It’s another way of doing the same thing a composer does when he sets the text.

    I’m not all that fond of the Malotte setting. I’m sure you’ve probably seen this video (and I’m sorry, but even after reading your tutorials, I’m not savvy enough to embed the link):

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=AR4PQ30VkBk

    I had never made the connection before, but I think you’re right when you say there’s a permanent shift (and not for the better, I think) in how English-speakers perceive that clause. In our inter-denominational (with strong Anglican roots) speaks it corporately “Thy will be done,…on earth as it is in heaven,” while I’ve always thought of it as “Thy will be done on earth,…as it is in heaven.” As N.T. Wright puts it in “Simply Christian”, the Kingdom of Heaven is both already and not yet.

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