Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.
An Interview with
Alfred V. Fedak
Alfred V. Fedak is becoming quite well-known as a composer, and this interview (from 1993) gives you an idea of the man behind the music.
When did you begin your involvement in church music?
I took my first church job at the age of fifteen, playing for a small Methodist church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I grew up. The church is no longer in existence-I hope my playing had nothing to do with that! That was 25 years ago, and since then I've served as organist or choir director in a number of different denominations.
Did you begin studying piano and move to the organ?
I started studying piano when I was five years old but didn't like it very much for most of the ten years I took lessons. Fortunately, in seventh grade I began attending a private school with a pipe organ in its chapel. The organ was quite a fine instrument, even though it had been built by physics students as a summer project! Anyway, it was my mother's idea that I should begin organ lessons-I think she realized that I'd gone about as far as I would go with the piano. I began studying with Prudence Curtis and fell in love with the organ and its music. The school day ran from 8:30 am till 5:00 pm daily, and I could usually be found in the chapel after hours, practicing till 6:30 or 7:00 each night. That's how it all started.
You went on to study organ performance.
Yes. I earned organ performance and music history degrees from Hope College [in Holland, Mich.]. I had actually completed the requirements for a third degree in music theory, but I think it was against the college's policy to award three degrees to one student. Later I earned a master's degree at Montclair State College, where I studied organ with Jon Gillock.
Why did you end up at Hope?
I went to Hope because I wanted to study music in a liberal arts setting. The school also gave me a very attractive financial aid package! But it was only after I arrived there that I realized what a fine music department the school had, especially in the areas of organ and choral music. The college has a wonderful four-manual E.M. Skinner pipe organ in Dimnent Chapel. In the gallery of the same building is a 25-stop tracker organ. So it really was the best of both worlds, with the baroque instrument upstairs and the romantic instrument downstairs. Roger Davis was my primary teacher for most of my college years, and he was one of the finest teachers I have ever known.
What denominations have you served?
I spent three years in Methodist churches, four in an Episcopal parish in Michigan, and fifteen in Reformed churches in New Jersey. For the last three and a half years, I've been at Westminster Presbyterian church in Albany, New York.
Your position at Westminster?
I play the organ, direct the adult choir with some assistance from my wife, Susan, and I oversee the administration of the entire music program, which includes a pair of children's choirs, both of them directed by Sue, and a new handbell choir, also directed by Sue.
You have quite a few compositions in print with many different publishers. How did you begin composing?
I had wanted to compose for a long time: even as a child I experimented with writing little songs. But I began composing seriously when I became a church musician and occasionally ran into situations where I just didn't have the piece I needed. For instance, once I needed an easy New Year's anthem, and there was none in my church's library. So I wrote "Now Greet the Swiftly Changing Year" for my choir. Concordia published it in 1985, and it has been selling pretty consistently ever since. That was my first published choral piece, but all along it's been pretty much the same story; everything I compose is written with a particular situation in mind.
Do you look through texts for a specific occasion?
Yes. I take great pleasure in studying collections of texts by poets, specifically living writers. With people like Fred Pratt Green, Carl Daw, Fred Kaan, Rae Whitney, Brian Wren, Shirley Erena Murray, Gracia Grindal, Tom Troeger-this is just a wonderful time to be alive and involved in church music. There is such a wealth of good new material being produced, and it's nice to be a part of that.
You've not only written many anthems, you've also composed a number of hymn tunes. When did you first start doing that?
Back around 1980, I took a summer course in hymnody with Erik Routley at Westminster Choir College. As a homework assignment for the class I wrote the tune Riverdale as a setting for the [J.S.] Monsell text, "Fight the Good Fight."
Routley liked my tune and offered to include it in the new Reformed Church Hymnal, Rejoice in the Lord, which he was editing at the time. As it turned out, Riverdale never made it into the book, because the hymnal committee felt the Monsell text had too much aggressive imagery in it. Instead, they took my tune Lakeland. Lakeland was originally conceived as a setting for "Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him," but Erik paired it with the [Martin] Franzmann text, "Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness." Those were my earliest ventures into hymn writing.
Your tune in Rejoice in the Lord was your first published hymn?
Yes, though another tune, Sixth Night, was published in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 at about the same time.
Why should a congregation sing one of your new hymns?
Most of my hymn tunes are intended as settings of modern texts which have no other music. That's by design. I enjoy discovering new texts and setting them to music, trying to find exactly the right musical expression for each. The sense of doing something that no one else has yet done is very attractive to me. And these are texts that should be sung in worship, because as time passes, the church's need for expressing itself though music continues to grow, change, and develop. The hymn "Once to Every Man and Nation" says, "...new occasions teach new duties," and I really believe that is true. We really need to sing new songs to the Lord. And for that reason, new texts are vital to the church. I like to think that my tunes are singable, but when they work well, they point away from themselves and towards the meaning of the text. If any hymn tune does that, I consider it successful.
I know that many of your tunes are written for unison voices, not four-part harmony. Is there a reason for that?
I think that more churches than we like to admit are without strong choirs. The unison hymns are well-suited to both large and small congregations, and a hymn is, after all, a congregational song, not a choral piece. There is also a great sense of power and community in unison singing, when everyone in the room is singing exactly the same notes and exactly same words at the same time. That sense of common purpose imparts a great deal of energy to a worship service, and it's something I enjoy very much, both as an organist and as a singer in the pews.
Do you try to write in a variety of styles?
I would have to say yes, I do try, but I'd also have to admit that I am basically conservative by nature. I do enjoy listening to a wide range of music, classical, folk, and popular, but I seem to express myself best in a fairly conservative vein. For instance, all my music is tonal. And it tends to be more serious than not. But I think that if there's one word I would use to describe the music I have written, it might be the word "accessible."
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
More of the same. More of the same and doing it better. At some point, I'd like to experiment with some larger forms-cantata, oratorio-and maybe try my hand at orchestral writing. But I have no plans to write a symphony anytime soon.
How does your choir function in the worship service?
Our choir has a twofold purpose. Its primary role is to lead congregational singing, and to that end we rehearse all our hymns all the time. We use a fair number of descants, alternate harmonizations, intonations, and interludes, and we lay out before each service exactly what will be happening on each stanza of every hymn. So the choir is very clear about what they have to do, and they can lead the congregation more effectively. The second function of the choir is, I guess you could say, a priestly one. By virtue of their talent, rehearsing, and experience, the choir makes musical offerings for, and on behalf of, the congregation. The anthems we perform are often quite involved, and I have to say that we have a very, very good choir: they do marvellous work and they really do enrich our worship services. For example, we regularly perform Viennese mass movements during communion services. We sing anthems from a wide variety of musical and historical eras, and much of our music is a capella. At least twice a year the choir presents major choral works, either in concert or within the context of the worship service. In recent years, they have performed Haydn's Mass in Time of War, the Rutter Magnificat and Requiem, Mozart's Coronation Mass, the Fauré Requiem, and Bach cantatas, all with full orchestra. Westminster Church has a tradition of fine music, and I'm glad to be a part of it.
You have paid singers in your choir, don't you?
Yes. Right now we have five paid section leaders-one in every section but tenor, where we have two. (Volunteer tenors are scarce!) We find that having paid leaders in each section allows us a great deal more freedom in the music we select. It permits us to be more efficient in rehearsal, and it helps to make the choir's sound more consistent. Each section leader reads well, and this is a great help in teaching the choir new music. This is the first time I have worked in a church where some of the singers were paid. My initial impression was that the volunteer singers would come to depend on the paid soloists, but that hasn't been the case, at least not to the extent I had expected. The volunteers are fine singers in their own right and manage very well on their own. The addition of the paid singers simply helps to coalesce the choral sound and speed up the learning process.
What do you spend the most time on in rehearsal?
The choir sings two anthems at each service, plus psalms and responses, plus all the liturgical music at the monthly communion services. We try to work at least six weeks in advance, so this means we have an awful lot of music in the works at any one time. I think we spend the most time on musical considerations. How do you approach a particular musical phrase? How do you interpret the overall movement of a piece? Where is the climax, and how do you express it? What does it all mean? One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how often choirs, even good ones, need to be reminded about the basics: pronunciation of true vowels, remembering to keep the s's short, release on the beat. But I think that's a universal experience.
Is there a way of encouraging people to sing better? Is there anything you can do as an organist to make the congregation sing?
I think that attitude has a lot to do with it. If the person leading the music-whether an organist, pianist, choir director, or minister-is enthusiastic, has a positive attitude, and can convey somehow that singing is something good, something exciting, and something enjoyable, that goes a long way. Beyond that, it's a good idea to educate a congregation. Very frequently at Westminster, we include notes on the hymns in our church bulletin. Historical background, musical explanations, and textual elaborations can be very helpful. I find that the more people know about what is being presented, the more wholeheartedly they participate. Saint Paul said, "I will sing with the heart, but with the understanding also."
Are you very hopeful for the future of church music?
In my most cheerful moments, yes. I think that there will always be a future in church music, but it's difficult to say what that future might be. The more I hear about what's going on in churches around the country-those who have abandoned their hymnals and are projecting songs up on screens, the predominance of commercial sounding music in worship-the more I become troubled, because it's very easy to discard a tradition, but very difficult to start one. I think that the Catholic Church (in which I was raised, by the way) discovered this after Vatican II, when the Latin mass disappeared, along with so many centuries of wonderful music. Most of that music exists now only in concert halls and recordings. Certainly, great strides were made in many areas of Catholic life and worship as a direct result of Vatican II, but the loss of all that music is unfortunate and irreversible. The rest of the Christian church can take a lesson here: once a tradition is gone for a generation, it doesn't come back.
You also do some work rebuilding organs?
Yes. Besides my work at Westminster, I work for a local pipe organ builder named Leonard Carlson. I also work at a Reform Synagogue, playing the organ and directing the professional choir on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. So it's a full life.
A life filled with music.
True. A good life.
And your family?
My wife, Susan, comes from a large musical family, and is a very gifted mezzo-soprano and conductor. She is also my best source of advice when it comes to composition. Her judgments are reliable, and even if I disagree with her on a particular point, I have to listen seriously because she's right so often! Sue and I have been married 17 years, and we have two teenage sons: Peter, 15, and Benjamin, 13.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I guess the one thing that remains to be said is this: there is a real spiritual dimension to everything we do in the field of church music. It's easy to lose sight of this when we get caught up in the day-to-day mechanics of the job, or in the difficulties of trying to make a decent living at it. But what we do does have genuine spiritual benefit for those we serve, and for ourselves as well. I remember hearing (or reading) something that Erik Routley said: when we do church music, when we make music in praise of God, we are engaging in an activity we will pursue for all eternity. In other words, the work we do has significance far beyond the here and now. I find great comfort in that. It's very helpful to remember during the rough times that invariably occur when one is a church musician. To think that we're preparing ourselves for something we'll be doing throughout eternity is pretty incredible.