Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Death of organist, composer, and friend Paul Manz

Along life’s little journey, we are sometimes privileged to encounter certain individuals who simply and deeply touch something at the core of who we are. I have to say that Paul Manz was one of those individuals, and I would hasten to add that his wife, Ruth, is part of that package. She was like the texture of sound that supports and enhances a fine melody. I just found out that Paul died on October 28th at the age of ninety. Ruth passed away only last year, after 65 years of marriage. Having known both of them, although briefly, many years ago, I can see him being quite ready in every way to move on to her, and God’s, everlasting embrace.

Dr. Manz was a Lutheran organist and composer of extraordinary skill and depth. His compositions, hymn improvisations, and performances at hymn festivals – a genre that he practically created himself – have been, and continue to be, a testimonial to the wonder of God’s grace alive in our midst.

I’d first contacted him some 25 – 30 years ago, after I’d heard a record (you know, those round black things with lines and bumps on them) of his hymn improvisations and had let him know by letter how well he had captured the words of each verse of "Were You There" with his musical interpretation. His playing was a musical sermon for the words. Subsequently, I attended a week-long organ workshop that he conducted at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. (I was the only Catholic there, as it turned out.) After having gotten to know both of them there, I’d invited them to spend a couple of days at Mont La Salle in Napa, which they did.

Once with us in Napa, they took some time for relaxation and visiting the area. He also played the recessional hymn at our Sunday Mass (the good Lutheran hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past, of course) followed by a rousing postlude. But what stood out for me was his calm, giving presence, and the fact that as he met my mother, who’d come for the Mass, he began speaking with her in Dutch. Having spent years in Belgium, studying with Flor Peeters, he knew Dutch quite well, much to my surprise.

Later on, he composed a setting of our Institute hymn “Honneur a Toi” and dedicated it to me, which was totally unexpected. For years, I would send to their home in Minnesota a bottle of the Zinfandel Port that had been specially made for Br. Timothy’s anniversary as a Brother. It was something that he had enjoyed when they were in Napa. And like a fine wine, the “aftertaste” of their visit and our occasional letters lingered on long after the fact.

His best known composition, no doubt, is “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” (Hear it here at YouTube). It was played and sung at his funeral in Minneapolis on November 8th. The words were written by Ruth when their young three-year-old son lay at death’s door (he survived), and Paul put the words to music. If ever the profound depths of faith were put to music by parents of a sick child, this would be one instance. The story of how it all happened is in the NPR interview posted here. The words of the hymn are these:

Peace be to you and grace from Him / Who freed us from our sin / Who loved us all, and shed his blood / That we might saved be. /// Sing holy, holy to our Lord / The Lord almighty God / Who was and is, and is to come / Sing holy, holy Lord. /// Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein / Rejoice on earth, ye saints below / For Christ is coming, Is coming soon / For Christ is coming soon. /// E'en so Lord Jesus quickly come / And night shall be no more / They need no light, no lamp, nor sun / For Christ will be their All!

His passion was the human voice in unity, as a choir or as a congregation, and his organ playing would build up, tone down, and weave all around the singers like a wind lifting a series of leaves in a wonderful cascade of sound and motion.

A fitting epitaph was spoken by Paul himself: "It's all about grace...thank you for the grace of singing with me across the years in good times and in bad, when our words have stuck in our throats and when our eyes have overflowed with joy. It has ever been a Song of Grace: "Love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be."

Note: There is a terrific Pipedreams program on Paul available online, where he plays his music and talks about his life, faith, and compositions. Click here to go to it.