Music Notes – Ecce Lignum Crucis

by Paul Emmons, Organist

As organist, harpsichordist, conductor, composer, and teacher, Anton Heiller was a highly versatile and honored musician in mid-20th-century Vienna.  His performances and recordings of the organ works of Bach were among the most magisterial ever heard. Heiller was often asked to end his American organ recitals with an improvisation on a submitted theme.  He graciously complied, producing stunning creations on a moment’s notice, but regarded the feat as a mere stunt and placated his conscience by charging a lower fee for the event– a scruple which probably only encouraged further such requests!

Heiller’s Ecce Lignum Crucis (Behold the Wood of the Cross) is based upon the Gregorian chant melody for these words in the Good Friday rite.  It appears three times, each time in a higher key, just as it is sung liturgically.  I believe that the dramatic middle variation evokes the hammer blows as the nails are driven into Our Lord’s flesh.  By contrast, the exquisitely tender third variation may remind a listener of Michelango’s sculpture “The Pieta.”   It juxtaposes the Ecce lignum Crucis melody with the German folk song “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three angels are singing), which Heiller’s friend Paul Hindemith had made familiar to us in his symphony Mathis der Maler.

Music Notes for Sunday October 29th

Martin LutherWhen I moved to this area from Washington State in September 1985, I left the position of Organist-Choirmaster of St. Timothy’s Church, Yakima.  My successor was a young Lutheran lady who immediately began making plans for Reformation Sunday.  She was surprised when the rector informed her, “We don’t observe Reformation Sunday, because we’re only half reformed.” So it is in every Episcopal church I know (and far be it from me to object). But on October 29, our Protestant friends will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  It is an ideal time for us to sing Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A mighty fortress,” which has long appeared in Anglican hymnals, and even Roman Catholics have been glad to sing since Vatican II.

Luther not only wrote the words but composed the music, and we shall use his original form, which I hope you will agree is actually rather jazzy and, once you get used to it, more exciting and fun than the regular rhythm popularized by Bach.

Paul Emmons, Organist