Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Lift every voice and sing!

Hymn festivals have become part of Lutheran musical heritage

A moment of serendipity occurred a few years ago. Metro Lutheran wanted to bring its readers together for a significant “non-print” event. But when the then-editor (the author of this piece) proposed a hymn festival, his board of directors resisted. “It’s a lot of work. People may not come.”

Mount Olive Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, cantor David Cherwien directs the massed choir at the 2010 Palm Sunday Hymn Festival.

Not long thereafter, the editor received an unexpected phone call. It was the publicist for a major book publisher. Noted Lutheran historian, author, and churchman Martin E. Marty had just completed a book about Martin Luther. Asked where he’d like to do a book signing, he’d told the publicist he preferred Minneapolis. He also suggested the event be in connection with and in support of Metro Lutheran. (As it turns out, Marty is a big fan of the paper.)

And so, the “semi-occasional” Metro Lutheran Hymn Festival was launched. The event was held at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis. Central’s cantor, Mark Sedio, held forth on the pipe organ, and Marty provided the commentary that Sunday afternoon. To the delight of many in the audience, Dr. Paul Manz showed up and sang along with the congregation.

Paul Manz in the audience at a hymn festival? It sounds counterintuitive. Those familiar with the Lutheran music scene in the American church know that Manz, considered at the time the dean of American church organists, essentially invented the hymn festival format. In a 1985 interview with the editor of Metro Lutheran, he explained how that happened.

“It started when I played an organ recital at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.” Manz was Mount Olive’s cantor (music director) at the time. “I decided we should begin with a hymn. I could tell everyone was loving the opportunity to sing, so the next time I had a recital, I let them sing more. It just developed from there.”

Eventually Manz did more hymn festivals and fewer recitals, turning a mostly passive performance into a highly interactive experience. As he perfected the hymn festival format, it developed into a program featuring a series of hymns, some familiar, some not. A commentator would explain the significance of the pieces, after which the organist would present each hymn with a complex musical introduction. Some of these theme-and-variation creations were composed for the festival itself, music not previously heard.

Then the congregation would do what one familiar text in Evangelical Lutheran Worship invites every congregation to do: “Lift every voice and sing!”

Perhaps, like jazz, the hymn festival may actually be an American creation.

And sing they did. Manz would set the tone and the tempo. The congregation would sing along. The cantor had such a good time doing it, he began taking hymn festivals on the road. Requests began to come from far and wide. The congregation, which was paying his salary, freed their cantor to offer hymn festivals as a ministry to the wider church. Over the years, as long as he was able to hold forth on the organ bench, he led festivals from coast to coast and all points in between.

Manz’ wife Ruth remembered a particularly funny moment: “We were at a music event on the East Coast. The printed program had ‘Ten Commandments for Church Organists.’ Number four read, ‘If thou art on the organ bench and thou noticeth Paul Manz in the congregation, thou shalt not faint!’”

A unique opportunity for congregational participation

To his credit, Mark Sedio did not faint when Manz showed up in the congregation at that Metro Lutheran hymn festival. By then, he was well past feeling intimidated by his mentor. The younger cantor had been Manz’ successor at Mount Olive Lutheran, where he led the congregation’s song for over a dozen years.

Metro Lutheran asked Sedio, who continues as cantor at Central Lutheran, whether Manz originated the hymn festival format or whether there was a European precedent. Said Sedio, “I’ve done workshops and concerts in Europe. No one I’ve ever come in contact with — not in Scandinavia, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or Germany — had ever heard of hymn festivals. They know about choral festivals, but not hymn festivals.”

Sedio’s successor at Mount Olive, David Cherwien, studied with Manz. He agrees that hymn festivals are not common in Europe — even though the first one he ever prepared was offered in Berlin, Germany, where he was cantor for the American (Lutheran) congregation at the time. That was 30 years ago. “I modeled that festival on the Paul Manz pattern. It was well received.”

So, perhaps, like jazz, the hymn festival may actually be an American creation.

Expanding on the legacy of Paul Manz

Manz loved the historic hymnody of Europe, especially that created within the German Lutheran Church. Sedio and Cherwien have expanded on that. “Hymn festivals are a great way,” Sedio says, “to expose people to types of music with which they may not be familiar. I always try to include something African, Latino, or Asian.”

Sometimes, he says, he invites the congregation to improvise harmony as he plays. “Those are the times when I really feel at one with the attendees. I tell them stories about where a hymn originated, how it might be done authentically in the context of North American worship.”

Mary Manz Bode, who joined the Manz family as a teenager after her parents both died, became Manz’ manager when the festivals began to multiply and he needed help keeping them all under control. She told Metro Lutheran, “Paul Manz’ heart was with the people — the congregation. He didn’t want the focus to be only on the organ and the organist. There’s strength in singing,” she said. “And Lutherans do it really well.”

Many parish organists lead hymn festivals these days, according to Cherwien. “It started with Manz, but now organists all over the country, across denominations, lead them.” Cherwien will be leading the congregation’s song when Metro Lutheran sponsors a hymn festival at Mount Olive this month, as a tribute to the recently deceased Paul Manz.

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