Traditionally, the first Sacred Song Service of Chautauqua Institution’s season welcomes old and new Chautauquans to the grounds. Returners will find that a few elements of the program remain the same — “Day Is Dying in the West” opens the service, which culminates with “Now the Day Is Over” and the postlude “Largo.”
But from there, Jared Jacobsen, the Institution’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, said he has creative freedom when planning the rest of the program. He picks a theme that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the Institution’s programming. For example, Jacobsen planned last season’s opening service to fit the week’s theme, but also had the Parkland High School shootings in mind.
For the opening service this season at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater, Jacobsen and the Chautauqua Choir will take Chautauquans more than 50 years back to the Apollo 8 moon landing in recognition of the Week One theme, “Moments That Changed the World.”
“(The astronauts) sent back that iconic photograph on Christmas Eve of the earth as a blue marble,” Jacobsen said. “It’s that photograph, which I’m reproducing on the front of the service leaflet, that informs everything we’re going to do (in the service).”
“This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home” is a performance layered with 11 pieces of music; it first focuses on the earth as seen from outer space, then gradually narrows its focus to its inhabitants and finally zeros in on Chautauqua and the Amp.
So after the traditional “Day Is Dying in the West,” which, according to Jacobsen, was written specifically for Chautauqua by a Chautauquan, the performance starts with that “blue marble” view of the earth presented by the Apollo 8 photograph. The program features a short reading by Russell “Rusty” Schweickart as he tries to explain how his perspective of existential topics like love, death and birth changed after seeing the earth from outer space.
From there, the Massey Memorial Organ will “boom” at the opening of the hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” The Massey Organ can finally flex its muscles to an Amp audience after being damaged by overheating on Aug. 21, 2018.
After featuring a medieval piece from Mother Julian of Norwich, whose poetry speaks of “a little thing round as a ball” shown to her by God, Jacobsen includes the Anthem “Musick’s Empire,” which he said embodies the goal of the Sacred Song Service.
“It’s all about creating, as he says, a mosaic in the air of music,” Jacobsen said. “And that’s what the Sacred Song Service is all about — we are creating out of the air of this place the vibrations of which we call music.”
As the performance continues, pieces like “Too Splendid for Speech but Ripe for a Song” help transition the program from the “blue marble” perspective of the earth to its inhabitants.
“(The piece) is very picturesque,” Jacobsen said. “It’s almost cheesy but not quite. … We love it, and the congregation gets to chime in on the last verse, which I love doing that. Chautauquans love to sing, anyway.”
The remainder of the program includes an anthem, “Within This Tent,” adapted by Jacobsen and blessings from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions, before a few other pieces and the postlude, “Largo.”
Sunday, and every Sunday of the season, Jacobsen gets to do his two favorite things in the world: Help people sing and help people worship, two things he has been doing since his parents first brought him to the Institution at 5 years old. Being the resident organist for the Institution was the dream job he always wanted.
“I’m over-the-moon excited for (this Sacred Song Service),” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen’s excitement for this season’s opening Sacred Song Service came after the Massey Organ’s trials and tribulations last season. In January 2018, a custodian discovered that the Massey Organ’s keys had been damaged by snowmelt. Luckily, new keys arrived from England and were installed just before the season started, and the Massey Organ was operable for the first Sunday service and throughout the season.
However, at this point, Jacobsen described the Massey Organ as “unreliable” because of the accident.
“I just didn’t know that it would work from Sunday to Sunday, or from morning to morning,” Jacobsen said. “It was different every single morning that I played it in church.”
When the internal computer of the Massey Organ was damaged again — this time due to overheating — after a morning worship two months later, Jacobsen left the grounds unsure of the instrument’s future.
Earlier this year, the Massey Organ was sent to Massey Organ Supply Industries in Erie, Pennsylvania, for restoration and repairs. Jacobsen said they discovered multiple aspects that needed restored after the snowmelt and fire damages.
“They totally rebuilt the Massey Organ console, which is the control desk,” Jacobsen said. “And in the process figured out that the computers up inside the Massey Organ also needed to be replaced.”
But other restorations were made during the 2019 off-season as well: Dimmers for the lights on the console were added, the music rack was made adjustable, further improvements were made to the keyboard, and the wood on the shell of the console was refinished, among other repairs that Jacobsen said “were the right thing to do (for the Massey Organ).”
Jacobsen also said the control desk was completely enhanced for the first time since the 1990s, and the computers in the chambers have been replaced.
Last year, Jacobsen was dreading the opening Sunday of the season. Thanks to the aforementioned improvements, he is looking forward to this one. He recognizes that challenges may arise, but after spending time with the Massey Organ in the days leading up to Week One, is optimistic.