Composing “for the Glory of God”
When David Arcus arrived at Duke University to teach 20 years ago, he never imagined that his future lay in sacred music. God led him to the religious and spiritual life of Duke, where he serves as associate university and chapel organist, with “much arm-twisting,” says Arcus.
Today Arcus is integral to worship at both Duke Chapel and the divinity school, performing for nearly 200 services a year. An accomplished recitalist and composer, he has also taught divinity school courses in church music and hymnody.
In 2000, Arcus won the Holtkamp-AGO Competition in Organ Composition and performed his winning entry, the Song of Ruth and Naomi, at the 2000 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) in Seattle. In December 2001, he premiered his Symphony No. 2 for Solo Organ, commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Organ (Flentrop) in Duke Chapel.
Arcus was commissioned last year to compose two works of sacred music for inaugural services in the divinity school’s new Goodson Chapel. The first, a communion setting including a “Sanctus,” “Memorial,” “Amen” and “Lamb of God,” was offered April 20 at the 87 th Closing Convocation, the first worship service in the new chapel.
The second composition is a new setting for the Charles Wesley hymn text “Sanctified Knowledge” from the pre-Civil War hymnal, which features the famous line, “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Arcus’ composition will debut at the official dedication of Goodson Chapel on Oct. 11, 2005.
Composing musical settings for hymn texts, explains Arcus, begins with an awareness of both the community and the occasion. “As a servant of God, I want to focus on writing for the glory of God and on the way in which people join in singing to give glory,” he says. “As I’m writing, I keep that goal in mind.”
From there, he works in stages. Sometimes ideas bounce around in his head as he makes connections with other pieces of music. For instance, at the Closing Convocation, worshipers processed from York Chapel to Goodson Chapel singing “Prepare the Way of the Lord” and “Gloria” from Taizé. Arcus wanted the communion response to echo the “robustness” of these Taizé songs, and borrowed “analogous patterns” from them.
After determining the style of the piece, Arcus thinks about rhythm, pitch and contour. He pays attention to the pacing of the text and how it would sound if spoken in rhythm. He finds a rhythm that enables the singers to “let the text dance off of our tongues.” Finally, he creates a melody to complement that rhythm.
Sometimes, this entire process occurs in one session. But other times, it takes days, weeks, even months. “Whenever you’re dealing with something involving the Holy Spirit, you’re at the Spirit’s mercy,” Arcus says. “The Spirit can guide you in a set way or leave you searching, floundering for a better way. The wind blows where it will, and so it is with the Spirit. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Writing the communion setting for Closing Convocation presented two additional twists. First, Arcus wanted to remember Bishop Goodson, a bishop-in-residence at Duke who was concerned with the spiritual formation of students. Arcus recalled Goodson’s lectures in an American Christianity course, where Goodson discussed the joyful nature of old revivals sung at camp meetings. Likewise, Arcus wanted this communion setting to resound with celebration as people gather to give thanks to God.
Second, he recognized that not all worshipers have a background in classical Western theology and music, so he created a piece that is flexible. For example, the triplets in the “Sanctus” can be adapted to fit an African-American heritage, include other hand instruments, or express an “international flair.”
Hearing his compositions in the context of worship can be “immediately rewarding and simultaneously humbling,” says Arcus. If people can sing his composition well and are eager to sing them again, he senses the rewards. But if they struggle, he knows it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
This opportunity for immediate feedback is an important aspect of composing and performing music in community, Arcus adds. It’s a benefit that not all musicians enjoy.
“What a privilege to be in a community whose members I know very well and who know me very well,” he says. “We have a kinship through the music. … It’s helping to shape and form who we are in our time here.”
To read more about David Arcus go to http://www.chapel.duke.edu/staff/viewprofile.aspx?id=16
Lisa SchubertD’05 majored in journalism and French at Indiana University. After graduating with a master of divinity degree in May, she returned to Indiana where she is a member of the South Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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