“Not our work, but God’s work” – Interview with composer John Sall
John Sall was an young church music director when he heard about a competition for young composers, sponsored by a well-known New York church. At the time he was the Director of Music at Bethel Lutheran in Rochester, Minnesota, and – in his words – “was young, ambitious, and didn’t have children yet.” So John put pen to manuscript and wrote “Is Not This the Fast That I Choose”, an anthem based on Isaiah 58 for choir, organ and string quartet, which won the Grand Prize in the First Annual Competition for Young Composers sponsored by Riverside Church in New York in September 1999. “It’s designed for your average good four-part church choir, one used to singing independent four-part work,” John told me recently. “It’s in a sort of unfamiliar or slightly minimal style for vocal writing, using a lot of the same harmonies with occasional unexpected moving lines that create dissonance.” So what is the biggest challenge with the anthem? According to John, “I found that the hardest part was just getting into the mind and ear of the singers how the piece worked. Once we did that, the notes themselves and the individual lines are not especially difficult. It’s not intended to be virtuosic or challenging.” In the score, the original composition segues neatly into “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (Lobe Den Herren, Neander, 1680),” which provides a nice surprise and ends the piece on a promising note, making a lasting impression on listeners: Praise to the Lord! who will prosper your work and defend you, Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend you; Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, if with His love He befriend you! John calls the inclusion of the hymn a “delightful, happy accident.” He says, “I was getting towards what I thought was the end of the work when the hymn introduced itself again to my mind. It kind of walked in, sat down and said, ‘By the way, I think you should include me here at the end.’” John recently dusted the anthem off for his choir at Abington Presbyterian and found it as welcome as an old friend. “What I found that I really loved about the piece is not just that sense of prophetic concern and chastisement that comes out in the call for the very things that God wants from us, but also the reminder of blessing that is inherent in doing those things. In the text, it is portrayed as a cause and effect: God says if you do these, things, then your light will break forth like the dawn.” “The idea is that while we do what is required of us, God will also strengthen the work because it’s not our work, but God’s work,” says John. “It’s not that God’s work can’t be accomplished without us – He will find a way to get it done whether we do it or not – but that it is with putting our hands to the work God has in front of us, we will also be strengthened and uplifted by the work itself. God Himself participates with us in that process.” John Sall is the Music Director of Abington Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania and author of Is Not This the Fast I Choose, a choral anthem based on Isaiah 58. This is one of the resources we offer free to participating churches. We are grateful for his generosity in waiving royalties for churches that participate in Harmony of Hearts presentations.