Kevin Hildebrand has set a text by Stephen P. Starke to the Welsh tune LLEF. This easy-to-learn composition is useful throughout the Lenten season, especially on Ash Wednesday during the imposition of ashes. Written to be flexible, it may be sung by soloists or a two-part choir, with an optional SATB stanza, and it may be modified in length. An optional part for treble instruments is included.
Discovering the Text
Rev. Stephen P. Starke has written more than 200 hymn texts, many of which appear in Lutheran Service Book. He wrote “Now, Even Now, Declare a Fast” in response to a request from colleague Henry V. Gerike for an Ash Wednesday hymn. Starke said he chose the Welsh tune LLEF upon finding it in an English hymnal.
“I love Welsh tunes,” Starke said. “It’s a very somber tune, which I thought would be perfect for such a penitential hymn.”
Starke said the seminal Scripture text for this hymn is Joel 2:12–13, the beginning of the appointed Old Testament Reading for Ash Wednesday:
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD your God,
for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and He relents over disaster.”
Stanza 1 reflects these verses from Joel 2:
Now, even now, declare a fast;
Turn, humbly turn—renounce your sin;
Tear not your robe for guilt amassed
But truly rend your heart within!
Starke said that as he wrote, he allowed the tune to guide the text into a unique metrical pattern. The first three syllables of each line are dactylic, where a stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables: “Now, even … Turn, humbly … Tear not your … But truly …” The remainder of each line is trochaic, where each stressed syllable is followed by a single unstressed syllable: “now, declare a fast … turn—renounce your sin … robe for guilt amassed … rend your heart within …”
Stanzas 2 and 3
Stanza 2 is based on two verses from Psalm 51, the appointed Psalm for Ash Wednesday:
For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
You will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
In stanza 3, Starke invokes the familiar imagery of ashes and the rite of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday:
What shall I bring for daily vice
Proffered before my Maker’s eyes?
A contrite heart, the sacrifice
That You, O God, will not despise.
Ash, only ash, I am, O Lord;
Dust, and to dust I shall return.
Death is my end, my just reward,
Solely the wage for sin I earn.
“I wanted to include the fact that we are dust and to dust we shall return,” Starke said. “Ash is a symbol of such a repentant recognition of our true condition. The wages of sin are death, and the only answer for sin is our Savior.”
Stanzas 4 and 5
In stanzas 4 and 5, Starke turns to baptismal theology:
What shall I do? Where ought I go
To gain the grace I dearly want?
Only to Christ, who will bestow
Life from His pure baptismal font.
Drown, sinner drown, beneath its wave;
Rise, saint, arise—in Christ made new:
Live out the life your Savior gave,
By words you say and works you do.”
“The entire Christian life is to be one of repentance—the turning away from sin and turning in faith to our Savior in the power of the Spirit,” Starke said. “Such Spirit-wrought repentance brings us back to the font, where our life in Christ began in Holy Baptism.”
While repentance and self-reflection manifest themselves in a variety of ways for people during the season of Lent, Starke’s text is a reminder that a daily remembrance of Baptism reminds us that the old Adam is drowned beneath the wave of Baptism and a new man has arisen as a saint, living in the life and love of Christ’s peace and forgiveness.
“I think both the scriptural allusions and the repetitions make this text quite interesting,” said Kevin Hildebrand, who composed the musical setting of the text. “We hear words and phrases that are so distinctive to Ash Wednesday, like ‘declare a fast’; ‘Ash, only ash’; and ‘to dust I shall return.’
“Pastor Starke has these repetitive phrases that aid the memory and learning, like ‘Now, even now’; ‘Ash, only ash’; ‘Drown, sinner drown’; and ‘Rise, saint arise,’” Hildebrand continued.
Kevin Hildebrand, Kantor at Concordia Theological Seminary—Fort Wayne, composed the musical setting of this text for two-part or SATB choir. Hildebrand said although he wasn’t familiar with the tune accompanying the hymn, he found it to be fitting.
“When I first saw LLEF in all capital letters, I thought it was an acronym for some Lutheran organization, like ‘Lutheran Ladies Extension Fund,’” Hildebrand said. “Then I looked it up on the internet and heard some haunting Welsh singing set to this tune and knew it was a good fit for this text.”
The setting is written to maximize a church choir’s available resources. The piece may be sung by soloists and two-part mixed voices or a full SATB choir. An accompaniment part for a treble instrument, preferably a flute, is also included.
If a church doesn’t have a four-part ensemble available to sing, three of the five stanzas may be sung in unison or by a soloist, while the other two may be sung in two-part format. If a flute is not available to play the instrumental part, a violin or oboe would also be appropriate. If no instrument is available, the piece may be sung without an instrument. The introduction to the piece can be played by the organ alone, accentuating the melody with an appropriate 8′ solo stop or combination.
“He uses the flute in a very subtle way that underpins the words being sung and propels the text forward to tie everything together,” Starke said of Hildebrand’s setting. “It’s absolutely lovely.”
Church choirs should evidently find this piece useful on Ash Wednesday without needing too much time to prepare. The piece could be sung during the imposition of ashes, as a response to the Old Testament Reading from Joel 2, or during Holy Communion.
And, though the text is explicitly tied to Ash Wednesday, the season-long theme of repentance throughout would make this piece useful throughout the 40 days of Lent.
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