A sermon preached at the Mass of the Resurrection celebrating the life of Jeff Workman (1957-2011), sometime organist and director of music at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church.
Westminster Choir College offers a class called TH350 “Keyboard Harmony.” It is described as being “an intense exploration of and drill in musicianship-keyboard skills. Activities include score reading, transposition, modulation, clef reading, figured bass realization, harmonizing melodies, improvising, and lead sheet accompanying.” Jeff Workman either took TH350 or a class like it. And while he certainly mastered “score reading, modulation, clef reading, figured bass realization (whatever that is), improvising and the rest—I think Jeff excelled, in particular, in the area of transposition.
As all the musicians in the room well know, as many singers know, and as many hymn-singing churchgoers have experienced, to transpose is to set a tune, or a phrase—any collection of notes—up or down in pitch, maintaining the same space between intervals.
And so, a hymn might come from an older hymnal and be pitched higher than we’re used to singing today. The generous and beneficent choir organist will transpose the tune into a lower key that is more manageable and easier for more people to sing. Sometimes, in reality, a tenor is really a bass, and so the solo needs to be transposed to a different key. Transposition can happen in a very planned, formal way, but it can also happen at the spur of the moment, when the need arises, and whenever the circumstances at hand seem to call for it.
Jeff had a great gift for transposing—in his music, and in his life.
I saw this daily and weekly, but especially I noticed it at a funeral we hosted back in January. Trent Royster was a friend of All Souls whose partner sings in our choir when he is in the country. Trent, the young man who died, had a good friend who is an interfaith minister, and who coordinates a nondenominational, diverse spiritual community. We hosted the funeral, but the visiting minister and members of her community led the service. They had, however, asked Jeff Workman to play a piece by Bach as the prelude.
While we were honored to host the service, the worship was a little different from what we usually do. The Reverend and her friends set up a screen in the middle of the chancel, where they would later project a slide show. The service was to have begun with African drumming, but the drummers got stuck on the Metro. So Jeff improvised a little at the beginning. Later in the service, during a reflection, I noticed that the Reverend got up and whispered something to Jeff, who was sitting at the piano. Next came the slide show, with images of our friend who had died and it turned out that Jeff had been asked to “play something pretty” on the piano.
The slide projector came on, and Jeff played. But, man, did he ever play. The music he made was an improvisation that sounded like some extraordinary blend of Erik Satie, George Winston, and Charles Ives. It was so beautiful. It was so right. Through that music, as we watched images of Trent, our friend who had died, everyone in that room was brought closer together. That music was God’s way of using Jeff to nudge a group of very, very different people a little closer to each other.
After the funeral service, I thanked Jeff for his playing and especially for his out-of-the ordinary response to the visiting Reverend. He looked at me, confused. He had no idea what I meant. I said, “You know, when she asked you to play something on the spot, and you simply did it and led us all in worship.” And again, Jeff looked at me and seemed not to understand that he had done anything unusual. That was soooooo Jeff.
He could transpose music easily enough. He did it with hymns and anthems, and certainly gave me lots of leeway with chant, but Jeff could also transpose people and groups of people. He was able to use music, and humor, and laughter, and love to shift us a little in our understanding of music, in our knowledge of God, and in our experience of each other.
Some of us have seen the church where Jeff learned to play organ, where he lived, and have met some of the people who were so important throughout his life. Though Jeff moved from New Park, Pennsylvania to spend time in Princeton, Baltimore, Alexandria, Palo Alto, and places I’m sure I’m not even aware of, he was the same gifted person wherever he went. And in each place, he would do his work of transposing, of making it easier for everybody to fit in.
With folks who can only sing low, he’d modulate his music to involve them. For those who could only sing high, he’d go where they needed him most. Through it all, God was working through Jeff to accomplish a greater work, and that greater work was to help us understand that each of us might sing differently—it might be in harmony or out of harmony, it might be Gregorian chant, early music, Renaissance, or 12-tone—but we each have our place in God’s ear, in God’s dream of what we can be, in God’s eternal song in which we all play a part.
Jeff and I shared a lot of favorite music and we shared some dislikes. I did convince him to let us sing “Leaning on the everlasting arms of God” for a funeral but I promised him we would use it sparingly. Jeff approved of my love of anything Benjamin Britten, and especially in Britten’s use of Christopher Smart’s poem in Rejoice in the Lamb. I think of that music, that poem and that composer, and the complexity of both their lives, and I think it is quintessential Jeff Workman.
After rousing most of creation to rejoice, the poem moves even more outward and including, as it builds slowly, like (I imagine) the arms of God enfolding and reaching around us:
For H is a spirit and therefore he is God.
For K is king and therefore he is God.
For L is love and therefore he is God.
For M is musick and therefore he is God.
And therefore he is God.
And then the music grows into almost a frenzy, as the instruments join together,
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like. . . .
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like . . .
[and so it goes, on and on, until it shouts out ]
For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the instruments in HEAVEN.
For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.
The Trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence. God plays an instrument and even the devils are at peace. There is stillness and serenity of soul.
For us, living here, still, there is not a lot of stillness. But Jeff is in that other place, singing and laughing and no longer needing to transpose, since in heaven– every note, every sound, every voice blends into perfection. We can be guided by his spirit. We can be led by his laughter. And can continue the holy work of transposition, as we encourage one another to sing, to pray, and to live.
Thanks be to God for the life of Jeff Workman. May his soul rest in peace, and may he rise in glory.