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Encountering the Almighty God

20 Minutes with David Hurd

David Hurd, whose hymns and service music are part of worship every Sunday for many Episcopalians, taught at General Theological Seminary for 39 years, resigning in 2015. He served as organist and music director for Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City for 15 years, until 2013. He has continued his work in performance, composing, and church music. Cara Ellen Modisett interviewed him by phone.

Let’s start with what you are doing now. Are you primarily focusing on concerts and performing?

At the moment, I have recently begun as interim organist and musician at St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan — I started that right after Easter.

I left my last parish position in the spring of 2013, and since that time I’ve been supplying in various places, several places with repeat appearances, not all of which have been Episcopal: Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church; I have been the organist for monthly Choral Evensong at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan during the present 2015-16 season, assisting Larry Long who is director of music there. I’ve been visiting and supplying in many places — for example, the whole month of March, I was at a single parish — St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck, New York — at St. Thomas.

What do you like about that moving-from-parish-to-parish experience?

It’s certainly enjoyable to meet new people, to have an occasion to worship with different communities, to share my own musicianship and to share their fellowship. It’s a wonderful thing to work with one congregation over a long period of time and and be with them in relationship — that’s a whole other joy.

It’s another thing to experience the diversity of congregations and have new awareness of the experience of different communities. A kind of — how shall I put this? — a sort of middle ground is when you can do a four-week period in some place — you have a chance to really deepen the relationship over the course of four weeks.

One of the things I’ve observed is it’s sometimes more difficult to be in different places week after week because it’s always a matter of learning the new patterns of different places. It’s exciting, but it can be more demanding.

Especially as an organist, because you have to learn completely new instruments.

One of the joys is deciding where one’s going to play — I’ve had the privilege of accepting invitations and sometimes not being able to accept other invitations. St. Mary the Virgin Is one of the finest organs in New York, and I love playing on it.

What do you love about it?

It’s a very distinguished instrument, and the acoustic of the room is so lush and reverberant — that choral sound and the organ sound are so enhanced. It’s a rare experience to play on an instrument of that quality and power in a room that is so acoustically rich.

Will that allow you to try out some new repertoire that you haven’t done, or haven’t in a while?

[I try to have a range of repertoire at the ready,] though recently I’ve been playing a lot of Bach, because it translates more easily from instrument to instrument. The organ at St. Mary’s is particularly good for French symphonic music, and so I’ll be looking to play some of that.

Do you know about how long you’ll be there?

I’ll be there through the end of the choir season this year, through the end of May.

What is their choir program like?

The choir there is entirely professional — at this point, it’s usually an octet.

Was the program pretty much lined up by the previous music director, or are you doing some of that programming?

The last director of music has in fact plotted out a good bit of the choral repertoire, but I’ll be making a few changes along the way.

What do you learn playing for Presbyterian and other non-Episcopal churches?

I think it’s healthy to worship with other Christians, and to appreciate the different perspectives on worship that different denominations.

I had the unusual opportunity Easter last year to assist at the organ at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and I was there for Holy Week services as well as for Easter Day. I had never done Holy Week services and Easter Day in a non-Espiscopal church, except for one year I was at Duke Chapel, so it was really quite wonderful to be at a premier Presbyterian church. They called themselves the “Presbyterian Vatican,” and to be in a really sort of high-toned Presbyterian Church in New York, and experience the fullness of what they did — they did not do liturgies that were derived from the Book of Common Prayer or modeled on the Book of Common Prayer, so I was free to really experience something that was a diff take on those occasions, and what I experienced was rich and well done.

It both deepened my appreciation for the prayerbook tradition, and expanded [my perspective] to understand that no one tradition has a monopoly on these liturgical events.

What would you take away from these experiences? Were there elements that you thought, hmm, I could take this with me to the Episcopal Church and bend the rules a little bit?

Not everything that works in one context is necessarily transferrable to another context.

The Book of Common Prayer — I take that quite seriously, to be sure that what I’m doing musically is working to [augment] what the church is doing and has received through the prayer book.

When I’m in a community that is not bound to the prayer book, I can appreciate the freedom the have to be creative in different ways. Both are significant approaches.

[However,] it bothers me when so-called creativity in the Episcopal Church gets in the way of the prayer book. I think some clergy traditions do not take the forms of the prayer book seriously. [The church needs to exercise responsibility along with recognizing] the beauty and the historicity and the integrity of the historic liturgies that we’ve received.

[Non-prayer-book-bound] churches have the freedom to make it up as they go along, and to think outside the box, and I think both approaches to worship bring truth with them. So I think the structured, liturgical churches need to be aware of what it’s like to not have those structures, and the unstructured need to be aware of what the structured churches benefit from.

I think most communities do have ritual practices they do hold to for a long period of time, whether they are directly descended from Book of Common Prayer or whether they come from habits that are not written down in such a hard and fast way. Ours are shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m also always interested in how other ritual practices have [developed] — not necessarily to import those practices, but to be illuminated by them.

Where did those illuminations happen for you?

Take for example Good Friday. When I was at General, I spent a lot of time unpacking the Good Friday liturgies. The parish that I served this year — they did not have a tradition of singing Good Friday at all, which was very foreign to me. The prayer book has included patterns for observing Good Friday which are some of the oldest in Western Christianity. They were not present in previous prayer books, but they are patterns that have come to us through western Christianity, particularly through Roman Catholic usage, and now we have these forms that connect us to generations of our forebears. And that is so important because Good Friday is such a pivotal moment in the Christian experience. So I treasure worshiping Good Friday as the prayer book has presented it.

[The congregation of Madison Avenue Presbyterian] was not bound by this historical tradition, but was still able to reflect on the death of Jesus in their own way. It was a very special spiritual exercise. I would not want to replace our Good Friday liturgy with that, but even without a historical pattern, these people of faith were bringing something very rich into their public life. And it helped me spiritually honor that day.

What kind of performing have you been doing in between the church work?

I still play organ recitals as invitations arise, and I’m looking forward to playing at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon later this month [Friday, April 29]. It’s a great place, and the new dean, Nathan Lerud, is an alumnus of General and I’m very pleased that he was selected for that post. The Canon for Cathedral Music, Bruce Neswick, is a dear friend, and one of the church’s finest musicians.

Are you exploring any new areas of music or repertoire?

Organs are so individual that I always try to tailor my programs to the special resources of the instrument. The organ in Portland is a magnificent instrument that plays north German baroque music very well, but it’s also large enough to play Romantic and 19th- and 20th-century music. So what I’m planning to play is some Bach and a major piece by one of Bach’s pupils, Johann Ludwig Krebs. People don’t play a lot of Krebs, so I’m playing one of his massive preludes and fugues, [a piece which suggests he was perhaps] trying to outdo his master, at least in length and number of notes!

One of the things I hope to do in the future is to record my own solo organ music. So I’m trying to keep those pieces in my fingertips.

Episcopalians are of course particularly familiar with your hymns and service music. Could you talk about the composing beyond that have you done and that you are doing?

Most of the composing I’ve done in the past has been choral, and while Episcopalians are familiar with my hymns and service music in the hymnal, I’ve done a lot of music beyond that — many anthems, and several settings of the Eucharist, some of which have been done for other denominations. Given the reality of commercial publishing, a lot of my more demanding choral pieces are unpublished. But I’m continuing to write, and there are a few pieces that are not even church music.

One piece that I did a few years ago, called “In honor of Martin,” [has been performed again recently]: — a five-movement work on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., for five voices, piano, string bass, percussion. The words are Jamie McKenzie’s poem “Standing Tall” and a short quote from the Book of Wisdom. This was a different kind of project, and I had to reach into a different place… the commission was part of my growth process as a composer. (Thank you, Carl.)

Is it jazz-inflected?

It is a jazz-like piece — I don’t think it’s a jazz piece; it is fully written out, but it has jazz elements.

When did you write that?

Actually, I wrote it in 2006, for the 25th anniversary concert of the Rejoicensemble — which is a group that was directed by Carl MautltsBy — Rejoicensemble commissioned it, and it is dedicated to Carl. They did the premiere of it then, but it was just performed very recently in Manhattan by the West Village Chorale.

Have you played any jazz yourself?

I respect jazz musicians too much to consider myself one! I’m a classical musician who is eclectic enough, I think, to reach out in different styles and directions. I think one time when asked about influences on me as a composer I said something like “every piece of music I have ever studied or listened to has influenced me.” But my classical training is the channel through which it all comes out.

You mentioned choral works. Would you talk a little bit about choral works?

Several of my commissions have been for special occasions. Whenever I write, I try to write something that will not be limited to one occasion, but I also try to write something that will speak to that occasion and will use the resources of that moment.

For example, recently I wrote a piece based on the 11th chapter of Isaiah, commissioned for the Mississippi State Singers, and they premiered it [in February]. It was in honor of Anita George. Dr. George is a retired faculty member of Mississippi State University, and she’s an active Episcopal laywoman. So this anthem was commissioned by the university in her honor, to honor her work, and quite ironically this very passage, Isaiah 11:1-9, was what she was asked to read at Washington Cathedral at Michael Curry’s enthronement as presiding bishop. I had met Dr. George years ago but had not ever gotten to know her, so it was really quite a moment to meet this grand lady, and to hear this piece of music I had composed in her honor.

A lot of music of mine is not known by the general public, in part because it has not been published. Many commercial publishers tend to concentrate their catalogues on practical, immediately accessible music. Pieces which are more demanding have a smaller market and often remain in manuscript.

Are you — and I realize I’m playing devil’s advocate with this question — are you as fulfilled by writing functional music as writing more challenging music?

I like to think that whatever I write is to a purpose. And — again, I was asked one time, why you write music — one cause to write music is commissions. But also in my years of directing music, and teaching in parishes and seminary, particular needs for musical settings have arisen. I felt sometimes that there was a need to be filled. Or sometimes I have an inspiration for a way to articulate a particular text. My sense is that, if I have a need for something, maybe someone else does too.

There was a general need for congregational music in the late ’70s when the 1979 Prayer Book was emerging — there was a need for new psalm settings. I really enjoyed fulfilling that need. But also I have always enjoyed writing choral music. I have had the privilege of directing choirs of more modest means, and they deserve to have the best music for their ability. And as for choirs of very advanced capability, they deserve to be challenged and be given music to perform that utilizes their skills.

One of the worst problems is when a choir overreaches and tries to do music that is too difficult for them. So I like to know who I’m writing for, and with my own choirs, I always like to write music that will challenge them but that they will be able to do well. I think that as a director of music, one needs to be always be aware of the demands placed upon singers. Most choirs want to be challenged to be their best, but don’t want to be overwhelmed. Many volunteer choirs can, over the course of time, sing at a professional level, with good training and a wise selection of music.

You are an improviser. Where does that come into your current performing?

I have always enjoyed improvising, and I frequently include improvisation in my recitals. I enjoy improvising in liturgy as is appropriate, and many times in the liturgy the timing of music and the matching of music to occasion can be best done by spontaneous music-making.

In your performances, what do you usually use as a base [for improvising]?

Often times, hosts will ask for an improvisation on a particular theme, and if they don’t, I ask them if they would like to choose a theme. On occasion, I might offer an encore at the end of a recital that will be on a theme I pick, or I will just invent things.

At General Seminary, you were teaching future priests rather than future church musicians. What were the most important things you could give them?

I think maybe the bottom line of my hope would be to leave them with an understanding that music is integral to worship. It’s not just something that’s drizzled over the top ornamentally; historically — and not even limited to Jewish and Christian life — music has been an integral aspect of human expression and certainly of the Church’s life. It goes right back to its origins.

We sometimes have a dualistic mindset that separates music and words, and some clergy give the impression that the liturgy is really just the words, and somehow music is just kind of little filler here and there, when in fact, historically, the words and music were experienced together as a vital aspect of corporate worship. We now have, in our day, resources in the Prayer Book and the hymnal that are so intentionally interdependent that there is ample material for making all of worship a musically, holistically rich experience.

I tried to emphasize music literacy. We certainly don’t expect the clergy to memorize the entire Bible, so we shouldn’t expect them to have to memorize the entire hymnal. Learning to read is an important skill. We have fallen down horribly as a society in not encouraging people generally to learn to read music.

I think for clergy, learning to read music is not an option. Not everyone will be a fluent sight-singer, but one should at least know the mechanics of reading music.

Then going from the mechanics: I think the period of time in the life of the church that I’ve been entrusted with in teaching and ministry has been a time when the church has recovered its historical link with earlier church traditions and with some of the best of what has come through the transmission of the Roman Catholic Church.

We have liturgical forms that connect us to our history, and we have historical music, but we also have so much creativity that has illuminated in every age, and so there’s a great amount of material to know about, and with the Prayer Book revision, we’ve recaptured psalmody as songs to be sung. And so the singing of psalms in various ways, shapes, and forms has been a focus for me, and also the recapturing of the musical elements of the Holy Days, particularly between Palm Sunday and Easter Day. The practice of singing those services is something that the church has recovered in the last half a century or so.

But this is something that actually only is appropriated over the course of time. The church may have officially recovered it, but in point of fact that recovery has not yet reached the outermost parts of the church.

I think one of the things that was important to me in seminary teaching was having a situation in which there was a certain amount of classroom time and energy, but there was also a very present worship component in which all those things discussed in the classroom were actually lived in the context of worship. We didn’t only sing in class. We sang in church.

What do you miss of that academic work?

I’ll put it this way — I feel like I’m on break right now. I consider that I’m still professionally active, and I look forward to more teaching in the future. I have always been energized by students and by the activity of working with people, and exchanging ideas, and trying to maximize the exchange.

It’s often said that one learns a lot when one teaches, because first of all, you’ve got to stay ahead of the students, or at least keep up with them. Particularly when you’re dealing with adult students, they have a lot of great value to share, and teachers stay connected by being in dialogue with their students. That vital kind of exchange is something I treasure.

I have been involved in one church or another most Sundays since I left my last parish musician post, and I’ve had the opportunity to continue composing which has been a vital part of my musical life and spiritual health.

I’m very grateful for that, that life and music do go on.

Bruton Parish has commissioned a hymn setting for its 300th anniversary year and will be sung sometime soon [during worship on April 24]. The tune name is Bruton Friends; the text, “Listen! wisdom calls us,” written by a parishioner who is a hymn writer [Angier Brock].

General Convention has begun the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1982. Is it time? Will you be involved?

I don’t know how involved I will be beyond the degree to which all Episcopalians will be involved. It’s a complex question. So far as I understand what the General Convention has done, the call for Book of Common Prayer and hymnal revision is not as clear as I think it was in the ’70s, so I’m not really quite sure I have an opinion. I’m not really sure what is being asked for at this point, except to explore the possibilities.

I think we should always be exploring the possibilities of revision, but I think whether we need a new prayer book and hymnal at this point is another question. I am in favor of saying yes to life, and life means change, but I’m not in favor of changing just because we’re restless. And I think there’s much that the church needs to really understand about the present Book of Common Prayer and hymnal before formally launching a revision. I think we need to look really carefully at the way we use our resources as a church, and printing more books and moving more words around may not necessarily advance the gospel.

The church took a very bold step in 1979 to print a prayer book that was very, very different from any in the past. Rather than having one way to do everything, it was full of alternatives. This was a very challenging change to the culture of the Episcopal Church, which the church continues to process.

In these very fluid times it is helpful to the church’s unity and identity that there be a corpus of church music that we own in common and recognize as the hymnal, just as we are helped by having a corpus of rites and prayers that we own in common and recognize as the Book of Common Prayer. This is a serious theological matter for the church. I hope we don’t rush ahead and get things out of order.

What skill sets or knowledge bases do church musicians need now that they didn’t 10, 20, 30 years ago?

Church musicians have always needed a certain range of musical skills, but increasingly they also need to understand how those skills impact the life of the church. We have a polity in the church that accords final authority for church music to members of the clergy. Yet the church is fairly haphazard in educating and certifying clergy for the responsible exercise of their authority regarding liturgical music. Add to this that the church has no effective mechanism for the education and certification of its musicians. When so many parishes struggle to pay their clergy, is it surprising that there are few positions available to laypersons who earn advanced degrees in sacred music from other recognized institutions? So parishes vary enormously in what they have and in what they expect of music.

It seems to me that a church musician going forward is going to have to principally be a person who understands what it is to sing, because it is the leadership of the song life of the church that the musician is primarily responsible for.

Now, I’m an organist. I love to play the organ, but organ-playing ability is secondary to choral understanding and song leadership ability. It’s helpful to a church musician to be sophisticated in music, knowing the history of music, knowing the history of liturgical music, because that will again enhance that person’s ability to help people sing the right songs. Just having them sing is not good enough. They need to have a knowledge of the songs they sing. It’s not just the act of singing, it’s the singing of God’s praise. Knowledge of the liturgical and musical tradition can supply a good foundation for real creativity going forward.

The collaboration that was spoken of very, very often back in the ’70s, the idea that clergy and musicians really have a collaborative enterprise, that’s still a great hope of mine, and of many people. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many wonderful clergy in the past. There needs to be empathy. It goes both ways: musicians acknowledging that churches, as places of worship, are different from concert halls; and clergy acknowledging that musicians have a vocation to make music, and to do it well, and in so doing, to glorify God.

God is forgiving, but I’m sure that God, who gave us voices and ears, knows the difference between good and bad music.

There is much talk about the idea that church is no longer about four walls and steeple, that church needs to move out and beyond, into the world. What is music and liturgy’s place in that?

At a church I recently served in, there was a slogan, sort of in the bulletin every week, and I wish I could remember the exact words. It said something like, “The Mass is over. The service now begins.”

It’s important for people to recognize that the liturgy is the worship of God. It’s where the church comes together to worship God, to be empowered and sent forth for the life of the world. They’re not mutually exclusive activities, but they’re not the same thing either.

While our liturgies need to be rich and inclusive in all the best ways, they’re not about our own entertainment of ourselves, or our gestures about our social stance. They’re about encountering the Almighty God, and being somehow changed, transformed, and focused for living the life of Christ in the world.

For example, the Salvation Army in New York used to have a conspicuous ministry of street-corner singing of hymns. A little-known secret: I spent a few teenage years as a half-Salvationist. I played brass instruments, I did open-air music. I have a great sense of taking the church to the world, liturgically.

But I’m an organist. Organists can’t take it outside. There’s a music for the liturgy, for the church coming together in the presence of God to worship, to praise God, and then there is that going forth. Once we have heard the words and then been charged and fed with the body of Christ, then we go out to be the body of Christ. So that may involve singing outside the church.

There’s so much church music that gets performed in concert outside of liturgy, and I think that’s a ministry that’s not often fully understood. In fact, when sacred music is performed in the concert hall, it still has great power, maybe a subliminal power that we should not be naïve about. When the St. Matthew Passion is sung in Carnegie Hall, people weep. Even non-Christians weep, because there’s a power in that expression. So I think musicians carry great music with them that says a lot in any context in which they have opportunity to do it.

What about secular music in the sacred space?

Then it comes down to what you consider sacred. Then you say, God made all things. In a certain sense, mankind has sort of made artificial separations for this and that, but I often take a broad view that things that are consistent with the Church’s teaching, whether they are specifically paraphrasing Scripture or not, are helpful to the mission of the Church.

Jesus said, “he that is not against us is for us.” There’s a lot of music that is really intended to be profane in the large sense of the word, and maybe needs to be understood as such. But there is much music that lies between the profane and the specifically sacred. Where the needle falls between the secular and sacred in this middle ground, I’m not sure I want to try to fix that point. But I do think lots of music, even some that is not specifically sacred in intent, can be used effectively in the liturgy.

One of the great things about being Anglican is that we are allowed to think. We are even encouraged to think. We are allowed to even cross the line, [to make discoveries]. I do think we have artistic freedom to be fully in the embrace of a God who creates all things.


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