Nothing better clarifies how we see God than the content of our prayers. At least since St. Augustine’s famous “Lord! Give me patience, but not yet,” we Westerners have felt free to alternate requests for mercy (“forgive me”) with requests for favors (“help me drop five pounds. Actually, better make it ten”). “Confusing” these messages is a neat trick we play not on God, of course, but on ourselves: many of our supplications must amuse Her as much as Augustine tickles us.
Still, we persist. Consider this brief Anglican prayer:
Hide not thou thy face from us O Lord
And cast not thou Thy servants in Thy displeasure.
For we confess our sins unto Thee
And hide not our unrighteousness.
For Thy mercies sake
Deliver us from all our sins.
Humble supplication? A to-do list? A bit of both? Let’s spend a moment decoding this message.
Lines 1-4: We we know we messed up. We see that now. We’re not hiding anything (although we could) and we’re sorry. No really; we are. We encourage you not to, you know, “cast” us into…well, let’s not think about it. And anyway, bottom line: you’re call.
Lines 5-6 seem (to this writer, anyway) to drift from exhortation toward instruction. In case God, who’s pretty busy, doesn’t get what we’re after here, we lay it out: “Deliver us.” And “from all our sins.”
Ok. This is a blog about music, not prayer. But what luck: the Elizabethan composer Richard Farrant set this prayer to music. So how does Farrant highlight in brief and fairly simple musical expression its possibly shifting meanings? Let’s walk through it.
Step One: Confession and Exhortation
0:11-0:19: The music accompanying the opening line “Hide not thou Thy face from us O Lord” is flat and unemotional. This is plain music that delivers a plain musical message: “just hear us out: we really are sorry to have caused so much trouble.”
0:20-0:30: A slightly more elaborate melody accompanies “for we confess our sins.” And note how Farrant highlights the word “our” by making the sopranos reach for it. And how the melody rises at “and hide not our unrighteousness.” Our heads may be bowed in contrition, but Farrant allows the basses in particular a quick glance upward at the words ‘our unrighteousness’ to see if confessing “our transgression” is softening up our audience, as we intend.
With these preliminaries out of the way, and noting that God has not already “cast us out,” our confidence grows. We think this difficult situation, properly handled, may turn out okay after all. Which leads to
Step two: Instruction
The music does not change dramatically (Farrant was an Elizabethan composer, not Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock). But listen for the following shifts in tone and presentation, conveyed through Farrant’s musical decisions, starting at 0:52:
1. Farrant highlights the shift from “our sins” to “for Thy mercy’s sake” by repeating this short passage, and at a higher pitch.
2. The music grows a bit louder and more insistent. We’ve in full instructional mood now.
3. The verb “deliver,” (which of course is the message we’re trying to get across here) is belted out by the sopranos. It’s the highest note in the piece, the better to get God’s full attention.
4. And does the word “all” at 1:06 sound just a bit, well, strange? Like someone accidentally sang the wrong note? That’s the altos singing a g sharp instead of the g natural our ears expect. Farrant’s setting of “all” is is the emotional and musical climax of the whole piece–his way of making sure God doesn’t miss how much we would appreciate His delivering us from all our sins–past, present, and (sure, let’s go for it) future.
5. Finally–and this will should definitely close the deal–at 1:16 Farrant invites the singers to repeat the whole “For Thy mercies sake” passage again–in case God was distracted and didn’t get what we were after the first time.
The presumption of instructing God is delightfully and stupidly human. Is that what Richard Farrant was up to here? God alone knows. But no choral anthem more perfectly captures the sly and useless equivocation of, let’s face it, many and even most of our prayers. Or does so more beautifully.