The Eucharist in Song

If “do this in remembrance of me” is the most obeyed “commandment,” as Dom Gregory Dix once said, a close second is “sing to the Lord a new song.” And the Hymnal 1982, used in most Episcopal churches (and at least one Roman Catholic monastery), is a good place to start to get a sense of the sheer quantity and scope of music composed for the Eucharist.

A quick scan of the footnotes of the 300s section of the Hymnal – and the Eu­charist section of the Service Music – is both international tour and time travel. Music and texts from nearly every century from the start of it all, and an astonishingly broad geographical spread: England, France, Greece, United States, Wales, Italy, Germany, Syria, Ireland, Slovakia, China, Canada, Austria, Rus­sia and Spain. The Hymnal generally, not to mention the various supplements, adds yet further richness to the treasury: Scotland, the Netherlands, Bohemia, Finland, Ghana, Ukraine, Sweden, and more.

And, of course, within each of the various national treasuries of music there are tremendous varieties of styles and ethnicities. “American,” for example, includes Native American, African- American, and a multiplicity of other immigrant sources: Puritan, Shaker, Moravian, Scandinavian, etc. We also have music and texts from the Jewish traditions.
What we find in our own hymnal and supplements is, of course, but a fraction (if a good cross section) of the music written for the Eucharist, glob­ally speaking. It is probably fair to say that more music has been written (and improvised or passed down orally) for the Eucharist than for any other single human “happening.” No other thing that human beings do has been the inspiration for so much musical art. And speaking of “art,” we remember also the masses and Eucharistic music of the great composers: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Faure, Verdi, Durufle, Messiaen, and many oth­ers. Much of this music is heard more in concerts than in liturgies, yet the source of the inspiration is the Eucharist. Music for the Eucharist, extending back over a thousand years, is at the heart of the vast treasury of Western music.

The very heart of the Christian mes­sage is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the Eucharist is its sacramental continuation. The message is a fire with the power to leap across every fence, every boundary of geography, language, and ethnicity. We can’t “time travel” to the future, but one thing we can bet on: Yet more new songs will be sung to the Lord. In the meantime we can sing our songs, and not ours only, but the songs of the whole world. And so we find our unity in Christ erupting in song.

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