This Is the Feast

On the 100th anniversary of the Richard Hillert’s birth, we reflect on his contributions to the music of the Christian church. In the years since his passing, there is an even greater sense of the magnitude and the merit of his compositions. Much is known about Hillert: his strong work ethic, his quiet demeanor, his gracious mentoring of his many students. In this brief reflection, I would like to touch on a few of these points and include some others.

I first learned of Richard Hillert as composer through several pieces published in the 1960s: “Holy Ghost, with Light Divine,” (actually composed a decade earlier, shortly after he had graduated from River Forest), “What News This Bitter Night,” a setting of a Christmas poem by Henry Lettermann, and the “Christmas Story according to St. Luke,” a 20-minute setting for two-part choir (children or adults), string trio, and organ. 

Richard Hillert (March 14, 1923–February 18, 2010)

Later, as a student at River Forest in the early 1970s, I was exposed to larger works, such as his “Five Canticles from the Exodus” and his newly composed “Passion According to St. John (1973).” Dr. Herbert Gotsch played Hillert’s Ricercata on one of his faculty recitals. And I was fortunate to study his earlier Prelude and Toccata for organ.

These pieces demonstrate some of the traits of Richard Hillert the composer: fluid melody, a desire for harmonic variety, careful craftsmanship, and in the larger works, a gift for overall structure and organization. In the large organ pieces, Hillert employed techniques of serial composition, which was in keeping with the broader musical landscape of the mid-twentieth century.

Throughout his career, Dr. Hillert espoused a philosophy of engagement of art in the world and for the church. Barry Bobb notes this in his article “The Composer as Teacher” in This Is the Feast: Richard Hillert at 80. The intersection of composition as art and composition for use in the church was always part of Hillert’s philosophy.

Richard Hillert had an amazing ability to write in various styles. He loved popular music, the “radio songs” of his youth, but also was drawn to the very serious, and esoteric, styles of composition that were present in the first decades of the 20th century. His academic side flourished in graduate studies and in his work at Tanglewood, but it never extinguished the draw that popular song had for him.

It is well-known that Richard Hillert’s teaching career at Concordia spanned five decades. During this time, he had many students in classes and in composition lessons. But his contributions as chair of the department are not as well known; he served in this capacity briefly in the 1960s, and served again in the late 1980s right before his retirement. I was a junior faculty member for the latter term. I’m sure that Dr. Hillert didn’t particularly desire the role, but took it on for the sake of the department. He brought to the faculty, staff, and students a renewed sense of energy, purpose, and collegiality; an organization to meetings and tasks within the department; and instituted several new programs. One was the spring music festival, a concert involving all of the ensembles in time of sharing for each other and for the community. A second innovation, with Carl Schalk, was a multi-year composers’ symposium, which allowed younger composers to gather with established composers for days of music sharing. A third initiative was improvement of the acoustics in the chapel, which had been built only a few years before. Through his patient persuasion, and enlisting the voices of many others, he was able to convince the president of the college to make the first step toward chapel improvements (further renovations would regretfully have to wait another thirty years).

The musical legacy of Richard Hillert is huge. What other Lutheran composer can claim music sung nearly “by all” (“Setting 1” of the Holy Communion/Divine Service)? Many people likely don’t know that the music is by Richard Hillert, but they are affected by it nonetheless. There are countless stories of little ones learning the refrain “This is the Feast” as perhaps one of their first experiences of church music. And yet, it is regrettable that only one of the Lutheran hymnals published in the 21st century contains a Hillert hymn tune. Let us hope for a re-evaluation in the next generation.

Hillert’s music contains the very short, such as psalm refrains, and the very extensive, such as his “Psalms of Grace,” or “Windows of Faith.” I believe that Dr. Hillert approached each task with the same amount of serious thought and consideration; one surely sees the artistic element in both short and long pieces. He composed pieces for prestigious occasions and also for the very ordinary. One of his “commissions” was to write the music for an alma mater for a local arts academy, the text having been written by a 9th grader!

His musical catalog reveals numerous pieces written for specific events: LCMS conventions in the 1960s, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation (“O Kingly Love” with Martin Franzmann’s text), the dedication of the chapel at Concordia (“Alleluiatic Sequence”), and two presidential inaugurations at Concordia. But his appeal was not limited to Lutherans; he was commissioned to write a major piece for the 150th anniversary of Notre Dame University. Settings of his Venite and Te Deum were commissioned for the 1980 national AGO convention, and his “We Rely on the Power of God” was sung in 1987 for the celebration of the mass with Pope John Paul II in Arizona.

Dr. Hillert found solutions to compositional challenges, including long texts like the “Te Deum” from Morning Prayer and “O Kingly Love.” Jaroslav J. Vajda’s “Amid the World’s Bleak Wilderness” presented an interesting challenge: each stanza had three phrases, except for the fifth and final stanza, which had only two. Hillert crafted an admirable tune that could feel complete at the second phrase as well as the third phrase. Recently I attended the choir rehearsal in a neighboring congregation where I was to play that next week. The custom of the choir was to honor each member’s birthday by allowing them to pick a hymn for all to sing at the conclusion of the rehearsal.  The night I was there, the honoree chose “O Kingly Love”!

How might we honor Dr. Hillert’s remarkable legacy this year and in the years ahead? Certainly, we can sing his hymns and anthems with our choirs and congregations, play some of his many hymn settings, and listen to the many recordings of Hillert’s music (some in mp3 on this website). In my own situation, I intend to relearn and perform this year some of his larger organ works, and will include more Hillert works in our choir season. Several of these works, such as “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd” are readily available by the publishers. (Elsewhere on this webpage is a listing of recommended Hillert works for the church.) We can honor his legacy by mirroring his approach to liturgical music; that is, that it should always be appropriate for the needs and the situation of the day. I don’t believe that Dr. Hillert ever let purely musical considerations outweigh the liturgical requirements for the music. Throughout his career, Dr. Hillert kept aware of musical developments in the world beyond the church context.  We might be encouraged to do the same, to continue and expand our horizons in listening to and supporting community and professional organizations in music.

Finally, we can give thanks to God for the gift of Dr. Richard Hillert and his music, for what his compositions have meant in the life of the church, and for the encouragement that he gave to so many of his students, whose work for the music of the church continues. May we sing with Dr. Hillert (and with Martin Franzmann) and the whole heavenly choir:

The feast is ready.
Come to the feast,
The good and the bad,
Come and be glad!
Greatest and least,
Come to the feast.

Steven Wente
March 6, 2023

[For a rich exploration of the life and career of Richard Hillert, see This Is the Feast: Richard Hillert at 80 (edited by Dr. James Freese), published by MorningStar---MSM-90-34/ISBN 0-944529-38-0. This includes an extended personal memoir by Carl Schalk. ]