It is impossible to suppose that the Israelites who originated all that wonderful emotional poetry in the Old Testament should have been without a corresponding ability to invent diversified melodies to fit the occasion. And they did so. Hebrew poetry was written to be sung and to be memorized. The lyrical sentences were shorter, easily divided into sections of the same length and thus rhythmical, by design. All that was needed was a strummer, a banger or a tooter for a good song. And we see this time and time again.
In the Biblical Songbook, we see 1 Samuel 10 (5), quote, “As you [Saul] approach [Gibeah], you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.” end of quote Saul’s heart was changed when he met this prophetic orchestra because the Spirit of the LORD came on him.
The music this cohort made was to be appropriate to the particular prophetic utterance, so the nature of the songs while improvisational and extemporaneous, was done with skill and order. This was not a rag-tag band of travelling minstrels trying to out-do each other in musical noise, but dedicated and anointed oracles of God.
In 1630 the great German Lutheran poet and scholar Johann Heermann wrote a wonderful poem celebrating God’s guidance in life’s daily activities – “O God, My Faithful God.” Catherine Winkworth translated it into English in 1858 and a Bach tune was appropriated for it. This sacred song contains the improvisational plea: “bless whatever I have wrought, for you must give success.” This hymn gives us improvisation (“whatever I have wrought”) within the boundaries of framework (“you must give success”).
From the American Songbook, in l955 the wonderful and ebullient pianist, Errol Garner gave his famous Concert by the Sea in Carmel, California. The concert was not to be recorded, but an amateur recorded it backstage for his own private enjoyment. The tape came to the attention of the Garner folks, and Columbia Records produced it. Garner’s style on this recording has been called “impressionist improvisational,” “inventive” and “spontaneous.” This recording is part of Penguin’s “core collection.”
Garner’s hands were huge – he could span 13 keys and he was absolutely ambidextrous. He signed autographs at the same time using both hands. On the Concert by the Sea album his backup men, including the outstanding jazzman and drummer Denzil Best, were playing catch-up the entire concert. Listen to this rough recording of Garner’s wonderful rendition of “I’ll Remember April,” the 1942 beautiful Gene DePaul/Don Raye standard, composed for, believe it or not, the Abbot and Costello cornball slapstick comedy movie, Ride ‘Em Cowboy.
(“I’ll Remember April” performed by Errol Garner) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfQvMpihfak
Because of the Trinity (you know, three in one), there is framework and within that framework, improvisation in the world through common grace. That is one of those common blessings given to everyone, Christian and non-Christian. And so we can be creative and express our individuality and unique gifts – like God’s oracles or Heermann or Garner – all within the proper boundaries of a Biblical worldview. So let’s celebrate God’s good common grace, together.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”