Some of the greatest musical hits of the Reformation were sung at the Overture yesterday. Several times each year the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Overture Center present a Free Community Hymn Sing, which is just the right kind of event to commemorate this fall’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
As I guessed, the opening hymn was Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God, written in 1529, followed by The Church’s One Foundation, written by Samuel Wesley and Samuel Stone in the mid 19th century. The rest of the 11 hymns were from all of the past five centuries and would have been familiar to anyone who was a regular church attender in the mid-twentieth century.
Most of the several hundred attendees were clearly in their senior years but their children and their grand children were also present, including babes in arms and a youngster in a Veggie Tales T-shirt.
“I don’t think there are a lot of places in the world where they do a hymn sing in a concert hall and not a church,” observed organist Greg Zelek, the new Principal Organist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ and Series. Zelek is just 25 years old, a graduate of The Juilliard School in New York City. He is also currently the Music Director and Organist at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy in New York City, according to his online bio page.
Most of the hymns, from Be Thou My Vision to Just a Closer Walk With Thee, are not sung all that much in a lot of churches anymore either. Hymn singing would have been familiar to church-goers for most of the last 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, but in recent years musical styles have changed and hymns are, sadly, more nostalgic than de rigueur.
My own memories drifted back, during Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, to being part of a choir that sang that hymn at the 1979 Prayer Breakfast for newly elected Governor Lee Dreyfus. And remembering how surprised everyone was that Judy Collins had a hit single with Amazing Grace on the radio back in 1970.
The audience at the Overture sang lustily. “You guys are louder than I expected,” Zelek told them after the first three hymns. He added, “It’s a beautiful thing to have the opportunity to sing music that speaks of peace and comfort.” Be Still My Soul, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, and Great is Thy Faithfulness were among the hymns of particular peace and comfort. Zelek, in one of his first events with his new job, also included some instrumental transitions, such as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach.
It’s wonderful that Madison has one of the finest organs in the world, designed to perfectly fit the acoustic environment of the Overture Center. The pipes have an undulating design which is meant to reflect the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s unique driftless region. And it’s also wonderful that regular events such as these community hymn sings are free and open to the public. The next free organ event is a Carol Sing on Monday evening, November 7th. I’ve already got it on my calendar.