For whatever reason, it sometimes falls to me  to introduce songs for special music and to give some sort of explanation of their meaning or context. I suppose it is well known that these are areas of interest to me, but it never fails to surprise me at least a little that others think of my introductions as useful or interesting rather than somewhat tedious and pedantic. So it was that I was asked to introduce a song sung by an octet of male voices this Sabbath, of which I was one, which contains a lot of Latin expressions. Since I generally like to share what I write with a wide audience, I thought it would be appropriate to do so here as well. I hope you all are able to enjoy it and appreciate it, and even ponder about it.
“Today we will be singing a song for you all called “Nearer, My God, To Thee” with lyrics by Sara F. Adams and James L. Stevens and music by Lowell Mason and James L. Stevens, arranged by James L. Stevens. As this song contains a great deal of Latin that most of us will be singing, we thought it would be beneficial to give you the Latin expressions and to translate them so that the message of the song could be well understood. So here are the Latin phrases that we will be singing as well as their meanings:
In articulo mortis: At the moment of death
Caelitus mihi vires: My strength is from heaven
Deo adjuvante non timendum: God helping, nothing should be feared
In perpetuum: Forever
Dirige nos domine: Direct us, O Lord
Ad augusta per angusta: To high places by narrow roads
Sic itur ad astra: Such is the path to the stars
Excelsior: Ever upward
We see from the foregoing lyrics that this is a song about seeking God’s strength and encouragement at the moment of death, knowing that for the believer whose paths have been directed by God death is not something to be feared but rather a sleep that when we dead awaken that we will do so into eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. We all would like to dedicate this song and our performance of it to Mr. Jack Scruggs for his instruction and encouragement of us over these past few years, for without that encouragement and instruction we all would not be standing before you all today to sing this piece.”
It so happens that the scheduling of this particular piece, which reflects so movingly on death and the hope of eternal life, was one we had planned to sing earlier but the performance date was delayed because we were concerned about how it would sound. Upon practicing it after the Feast and realizing that we were doing it well, especially when our eyes were closed so that we were not distracted by anything outside of our own heads, we wanted to sing the song while our former director, who is now in the process of dying due to kidney failure, would be able to hear us before death. I could not think of a more fitting song to express his love of male harmonization  than to sing this particular song for our brethren. Hopefully it was received as such.
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