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The Apple Tree

Offertory Anthem: “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”

arr. Elizabeth Poston (b. 1905-1987)

This quote is from the blog “The Jesus Question.” (Now known as Art & Theology):

“Bread of Life. Living Water. Light of the World. Good Shepherd. The Vine. The Lamb.” These are several well-known biblical metaphors for Jesus. Here’s one you may be less familiar with: Jesus Christ the apple tree. It comes from Song of Solomon, a compilation of erotic love poetry traditionally read by Christian exegetes as an allegory of the love between Christ and his church: “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3). In 1761 an anonymous poet teased out this apple tree metaphor and submitted the outcome to London’s Spiritual Magazine under the initials R.H. By 1784 the poem had been picked up by New England Baptist minister Joshua Smith and published in his popular compilation Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs. Since then several composers have set it to music: Elizabeth Poston’s 1967 setting is the most commonly performed today Stanford Scriven, who also set the poem and who was only twenty-one when his version premiered in 2009, said,

In my mind, the poet [who wrote “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”] is a simple, honest individual attempting to depict the wonder of the Son of God in a way that is understandable by all. Thus, I sought the same in composing this piece. I wanted to create a sense of peace and assurance in the music that could speak to everyone, even those who know nothing about music technically, because this is how I see the text.

Now, since the early days of Christianity, Jesus has been thought to be the Tree of Life described in Revelation 22:2. So the image of Jesus as tree (or his cross as tree, he its fruit) has been developed by theologians and artists over the course of many centuries, especially in connection to the Crucifixion. This poem, however, makes no explicit reference to the Crucifixion, nor does it mention the tree in the Garden of Eden that occasioned the fall of humanity. Though these associations are welcome, the main emphasis here is on the speaker’s sensory engagement with this tree—beholding its magnificent stature and lushness, sitting in the coolness of its shade, indulging in its sweet, crisp fruit. It’s a love poem—not nearly as racy as the one that inspired it, but an ode, nonetheless, to Christ’s beauty, his glory, his truth, and to the pleasure he gives.

Jones, Victoria Emily . "A seasonally appropriate metaphor for Jesus." The Jesus Question. September 23, 2015. Accessed January 27, 2018.

Remembered as a precise composer of hymn tunes, Christmas carols, and music for radio programs and movies, Elizabeth Poston was involved in the field of music from various angles. She studied piano with Harold Samuel and received a formal education at the Royal Academy of Music, then gained recognition for her compositional skills after several of her songs were published in the 1920s. While broadcasting for the BBC (1939 - 1945 and 1947) she simultaneously wrote about music for the Arts Council and performed at the National Gallery Concerts. Quite notable among these overlapping activities was her supportive war leadership of the music in the European Service. It was prior to and during the period she presided over the Society of Women Musicians (1955 - 1961) that she adamantly composed scores for dozens of radio shows, often in partnership with leading poets of her day. Undoubtedly drawing upon her experience as a writer, Poston also edited song collections. Although she did travel abroad to countries such as the U.S. and Canada, she passed away in the same vicinity of her birth at the age of 81. Poston's works, which include Sweet Suffolk Owl (1925), Concertino da camera on a Theme of Martin Peerson (1950), The Nativity (1951), and Sing unto the Lord (1959), are primarily stylistically characterized as having stemmed from the neo-Classical. Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (also known as "The Apple Tree Carol") (1967) is her most widely recorded carol. The numerous recordings of this work have featured well-known groups such as the Westminster Abbey Choir, the Pro Arte Singers, the St. John's College Choir, and the Elora Festival Singers.

Communion Anthem: “Bogoroditse Devo” Sergei Rachmaninoff (b. 1873-1943)

Bogoroditse Devo is, very possibly, the most popular and widely performed piece of Russian Orthodox sacred music. Its graceful simplicity and pious reverence, which build to a mighty exclamation on the word "raduysia" (Rejoice!), move and stir the soul and spirit in way that few other pieces of sacred choral music can do. It is loosely translated as the Ave Maria (Hail Mary, full of grace…) but the first line of the traditional greeting by Gabriel to Mary is better translated as “Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God” and then the text follows the traditional prayer.

"Rejoice, O Virgin." Bogoroditse Devo. Spring 1991. Accessed January 28, 2018.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists of all time and one of the most outstanding melodists amongst composers, was born at Oneg, near Novgorod, on 20 March 1873 (1 April New Style), into a musical family: his grandfather had been a pupil of John Field and his father, too, played the piano. When Sergei was nine, financial difficulties forced the sale of the family estate and they moved to St Petersburg, where he took piano lessons at the Conservatoire. Rachmaninoff’s cousin, the pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti, had studied in Moscow with the strict Nikolai Zverev, and suggested that Rachmaninoff go to Zverev as well, and so in 1885, he made the journey to Moscow, staying with Zverev for three years. In 1888 Rachmaninoff began to study piano with Siloti himself and composition with Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky; he also received advice from Tchaikovsky, who was a friend of Siloti and his former teacher. Even before his graduation as a pianist in 1891, Rachmaninoff had composed what was to become his best-known work, the Prelude in C sharp minor. His graduation as a composer came in 1892: he was awarded a gold medal for his Pushkin opera Aleko. The premiere of his First Symphony, in Moscow in 1897, was a disaster (word was that the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was drunk), and Rachmaninoff destroyed the score (fortunately, a set of parts survived, which allowed the reconstruction of the score after Rachmaninoff’s death). Rachmaninoff’s early career established a pattern he was to follow throughout his life: an uneasy struggle between performing and composing, with economic pressures usually ensuring that precedence needed to be given to the demands of the platform. He was an international figure as early as 1899, when he conducted a concert of his orchestral works in London, also playing some of his piano music. Rachmaninoff began his Second Piano Concerto, one of the most frequently performed of all works in the genre, in 1900, completing it the following year, when his Cello Sonata was also composed. The little-heard cantata Spring followed in 1902, the year in which he married his cousin Natalya Satina; their daughter Irina was born in 1903. In 1904 Rachmaninoff took up a conductor’s post at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, stimulating the completion of two further operas, Francesca da Rimini and The Miserly Knight, in 1906. The pressures of conducting life in the Bolshoi persuaded the Rachmaninoffs to spend some time away from the capital, and they moved for a short while to Dresden. The years up to the Russian Revolution were spent in an exhausting whirl of playing and conducting, with the family’s country estate at Ivanovka, in the countryside south-east of Moscow, offering a haven of peace where he could concentrate on composition. The works that emerged during this period include the Third Piano Concerto, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, the choral symphony The Bells, and two a cappella choral works, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the Vespers. After the October Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff determined that he and his family would have to leave the country, and he accepted an invitation to perform in Stockholm. The composer, his wife and their two daughters left in December; he was never to return. They stayed briefly in Stockholm and Copenhagen, sailing to America in November 1918. There, his concertizing increased, reducing his time for composition; he also began a career in the studio, producing recordings that eighty-odd years later are still regarded as some of the most valuable interpretations, of his own and others’ music, ever committed to disc. Rachmaninoff sought to recreate the peace he had found at Ivanovka by building a villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne, far from the insistent pressures of the international concert circuit, and here he wrote the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Third Symphony which, in 1939, he recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which maintained a long association with his music. His last large-scale masterpiece was the Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940. At the time of his last recital, on 17 February 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was already gravely ill, and he died on 28 March, in Beverly Hills. Rachmaninoff’s personal reserve was complemented by a deeply generous nature, which is reflected in the disciplined opulence of his music.

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.


Sunday, February 4 will be exploring the music from the continent of Africa with the anthems coming from the Soweto Gospel tradition and those American composers now writing in that tradition to help keep it alive.

“The music, which uses traditional African call-and-response structure and rhythms and Western vocal arrangements, was born in the missionary churches of South Africa. Over time, a style developed that embraced both the hymns the missionaries had brought with them and the traditional music of Africa.”

Uhles, Stephen. “Soweto Gospel Choir Looks to Tradition.” The Augusta Chronicle, 16 Mar. 2006,, page=3

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