A hymn is comprised of two elements, the text and the tune. Most people know hymns by their texts and are not even aware that a separate tune name exists. So, for example, if I asked you to sing the tune “Antioch,” you would look at me like I was crazy when, in fact, you have sung “Joy to the World” your entire life.
The tune “St. Flavian” is two lines long and, according to the hymnal I have here, was composed in 1562. A variety of texts have appeared with it over the centuries, but it is the tune which I shall never forget. By the way, it moves step-wise and is innocuous.
My first job playing the organ in a church for pay began in September of 1967 when I was a sophomore in high school. That church paid me $90 a month, and raised my pay $5 after one year. One Sunday morning the closing hymn was “St. Flavian.” The pastor was standing in the altar area and, I thought, had finished whatever he was saying. I began to play “St. Flavian.” It turned out that he had not finished speaking so my playing became walking music for him to repair to the lectern. Remember, the tune is short. He said whatever he had to say there, I played the hymn again, and the congregation sang. After church the pastor walked up to me and said almost angrily, “If you cannot learn to play the hymns at the right time, I will find another organist.”
That pastor has long since gone to his reward, and I am sure somewhere along the way he wondered how he would be remembered. Perhaps he mused that he would be thought back upon for his erudition and wisdom. I will forever remember him for his harshness toward a 16 year old boy that day.
I would like to be remembered for having introduced an abundance of fine music to those in the church choirs around me. When I began at my church in Libertyville, Illinois on Dec. 1st, 1991, three file cabinet drawers constituted the entire choral library. Today almost 200 “Gamble’s” boxes and ten drawers constitute the library. Anyone who desires to do so is most welcome to ponder o’er the index of pieces I have assembled.
If there is one major work whose presentation towers above everything else I have done at my church, it is “Noye’s Fludde” by Benjamin Britten. (I first learned of the piece at St. Mark’s Church, Shreveport, Louisiana.) It is actually a small opera, and people throughout our church got involved in its production. We had set builders and painters, sound people, make-up artists, actors, singers, a small orchestra, and even a “Voice of God,” as called for in the script. Our “Voice” was a radio personality with a sonorous voice that one could well imagine sounding like God. Teenagers who played Noye’s sons and their wives are adults today. When they return to church, their part in “Noye’s Fludde” inevitably comes up in conversation.
The show was actually stolen, however, by our costume lady. Children walked into our ark two-by-two wearing head pieces of the animals made by that lady. Never mind that she works in the costume department of a regional theater. She knew what she was doing, and captured the essence of the show. In the past year or so a teenager, not from my church, walked up to me and told me she was an animal in my “Noye’s Fludde” production and remembered it fondly.
Wikipedia says that the man St. Flavian was a bishop of Constantinople in the 5th century. Perhaps the Orthodox celebrates him with some fanfare. When I see his name, I think of another man who was so rude to me 50 years ago. He was certainly no saint, and would not have rated a place in Noah’s ark.