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"The Hallel" - Some reflections

I have in recent days completed the choral and keyboard scores for The Hallel. There is still some work to be done related to orchestral writing and completion of the narration, but reaching this juncture has given me good reason to pause and think about the journey to this point.

In late Fall 2016, Al Hawkins, Artistic Director for Deo Cantamus, called me to inquire about my interest and availability to do an extended commission work for that organization. Though I do a number of commissions in any given year, they tend to be smaller in scope and typically with a particular focus from the commissioning organization (like a building dedication, an anniversary celebration, honoring a long-term staff member, etc.). What Al was suggesting was an extended work with a blank canvas in front of me for this outstanding choral ensemble. “What would you like to do?” he asked me as we began exploring possibilities together.

Interestingly enough, only a few days earlier I had a passing conversation with a long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Becky Chappell, who is on the music faculty at Anderson University in Indiana. She had just returned from Israel, a place she has frequented on numerous occasions over the years. She asked me if I had ever done any composing using The Hallel as the basis for my writing. My response was, “No,” while confessing my limited knowledge of that particular grouping of Scripture and its significance in our Judeo-Christian experience.

I found it intriguing – actually, I would say providential – that these two separate conversations happened within days of each other. As I began to consider the possibilities of the potential commissioned work for Deo Cantamus in conjunction with the seed that had been planted by my Indiana friend, I became convinced that this was the direction I should head. Al and the advisory board for Deo Cantamus endorsed my initial proposal and we began to collectively move forward to solidify a schedule and a plan to bring this idea to fruition.

Now nearly two years later, I am even more convinced that God has had His hand in all of this guiding and directing each step as details and plans have come together. Though the work is not fully completed, the end is in sight as we anticipate the premiere on October 27. Adult and children singers, instrumentalists, narrators, technicians, and others have been secured. Rehearsals are ramping up as we prepare for what I believe will be a glorious time of music and worship.

The Hallel is the name given to the group of Psalms 113-118. They are largely psalms of praise and are deeply rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage. In the Old Testament, these psalms were typically chanted or sung during the major Jewish festivals. They were often recited or sung in worship and also used in the homes of Jewish families, particularly at the feast of Passover. In the New Testament, there is no reason to believe that this practice did not continue with the early followers of Christ. The Hallel may, in fact, have been the very hymn that Jesus and His disciples sang together at the conclusion of the Passover meal as Scripture indicates.

Today, these psalms continue to be a regular part of both Jewish and Christian worship. They celebrate the majesty and sovereignty of God. They recall the Exodus journey of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. They underscore God’s bountiful goodness and faithfulness for His children. The Messianic overtones foretell the coming of Jesus, and they provide a dramatic vehicle for praising the living and eternal Creator.

As I have crafted the six movements of this work (one movement for each of the six psalms in The Hallel), I have been moved by the power of the message of God’s Word in the texts. They are honest and transparent reflections of Israel’s journey and of the presence of God’s Spirit in that journey. They are filled with an optimism and hope that even in the most difficult of circumstances, God has promised to be present and to guide. As a result, these words are not just words for ancient Israel, but they are words for us today as we claim the promises of God in our own journeys of life and faith.

As I have worked on the music, my prayer has constantly been that the music would not get in the way of the timeless and inspired Word of God, but that it would serve as a means to deliver that Word in a clear and powerful way. I pray that will be the case as we put the finishing touches on this project.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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