Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

On February 26, 2007, several hundred guests attended an extraordinary concert at Landmark Center in St. Paul. The concert with the inviting title “Listen to the Song of Life” celebrated the life of Bruce Carlson whose death occurred on July 28, 2006, after a three-year battle with disease. Bruce’s thirty-plus years of leadership put The Schubert Club on the map. He brought some of the finest talent in the musical world to the Twin Cities. In addition, he developed The Schubert Club Rare Instruments Museum and took delight in supervising the collection of musical instruments and manuscripts as the museum expanded through the years.

Saint Paul Mayor, Chris Coleman, declared the day “Bruce Carlson Day.” The pre-concert music consisted of harp, classical guitar, and a trumpet fanfare and the concert program featured a broad and imposing array of Twin Cities musicians, composers, and poets. I must mention several musical sightings that moved me greatly. The internationally famous mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade, sang a lovely lieder by Gustav Mahler and Pulitzer Prize-Winning composer, Dominick Argento, gave a tribute “Finding the Right Word for Bruce.” That “right word” continued in a “Hymn for Bruce” by composer, Stephen Paulus who accompanied Soprano Maria Jette. Ms. Jette is soloist at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and appears frequently on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. The text was adapted from the poem “An Offering” by George Herbert (1593-1633). The perfect matching of music with text sung by Maria Jette brought tears to my eyes. This is the text she sang:

Since my sadness
Into gladness
Lord, thou dost convert,
O accept
What thou hast kept,
As thy due desert.

Had I many,
Had I any,
(For this heart is none),
All would be thine
And none would be mine:
Surely thine alone.

Yet thy favor
May give savor
To this poor oblation;
And it raise
To be thy praise,
And be my salvation.

I hesitate to mention this strange coincidence or heavenly magic or better yet, extension of George Herbert’s poetry, but I will take the risk. Above the platform hung a large expanded photograph of Bruce Carlson. During the concert the photo gently swayed, due, no doubt, to wind currents in the room. However, when Maria Jette and Stephen Paulus performed “Hymn for Bruce,” I couldn’t help but notice increased movement of the photo swaying, it seemed, to the accompaniment of the music. Was this the signal of Bruce’s own “offering” in response to the music George Herbert’s text? Or was it my over-stimulated imagination as somewhat of a poet and mystic myself?

The Schubert Club Notes available at the concert, referred to Bruce as “a man of quiet faith.” The story that follows gives witness to that faith. Late summer shortly after having been given the disheartening news from his doctors of his worsening condition, Bruce called his staff together around the big wooden table that had been the scene of coffee cups and notebooks for planning future Schubert events. This is how one staff member tells it: “This time was different. Bruce brought to the table an old leather Bible given him by a much-loved Schubert Club Board Member—an early mentor and long-departed friend. Bruce calmly told us his news, and then he read Psalm 100. ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands….’ Next he read the poem ‘I Praise’ by Ri1ke. Finally, he read ‘The Prayer of Saint Francis.’”

The closing word in Pastor David Hawkinson’s homily at the Memorial Service for Bruce at the Plymouth Church could have also summarized the extraordinary concert celebrating his life: “…This marvelous gifted, gracious life, clad in bow tie and child-like gleam, whose life brought us again and again to say—as we say tonight with tears in our eyes with everything that breathes—Hallelujah!”

As Pietisten staff we will sorely miss Bruce. He never missed a meeting except for unusual circumstances. His presence enlivened our discussions whether they turned to theology, or the Covenant, or North Park, or the next issue of Pietisten. And, we will miss the sign of Bruce’s support to our modest efforts—the drawings of another of his passions—Covenant Chris Craft. Peace to his memory!

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg