“Psalm 51” cantata to debut during Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church

Have mercy on me, O God,


according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

So begins Psalm 51, among the best-known chapters in the Bible.

It is from this writing that a new choral work, which originated in Topeka, was composed.

Titled simply “Psalm 51,” the cantata will debut during the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church, 817 S.W. Harrison.

The work was composed by Gordon McQuere, a retired music professor at Washburn University. The paraphrase of the psalm was done by the Rev. Neil Weatherhogg, the former pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

The work was three years in the making. A final rehearsal, with all principals involved, will take place Saturday morning at First Presbyterian Church.

Then, on Palm Sunday, the 30-minute cantata will be performed for the first time.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned,

and done what is evil in your sight.

McQuere likens the process of composing a cantata to baking a cake. First comes a recipe. Then the ingredients. Then the actual baking process.

Then, he said, “you find out if you have a cake.”

The cake is done. The frosting will come during the performance on Sunday.

McQuere and Weatherhogg said they are excited to hear “Psalm 51” performed in a church setting, for which it was intended.

The idea for composing a cantata on Psalm 51 had been a dream of McQuere’s for a number of years, he said.

“I suppose I’m the origins of it,” McQuere said as he sat in the front pew of the exquisite First Presbyterian Church sanctuary on Tuesday morning. “Psalm 51 is one of the greatest, most interesting psalms, with all of these memorable lines that we use all the time.

“It had been sort of in my mind for years to try and do something with more of it than with just single lines out of it as we often set.

“And so, the big stumbling block was getting a set of lyrics for it that were appropriate. For a variety of reasons, it is very difficult to set it out of the Old Testament the way it is. I had tried different things and nothing was working.

“Then I got connected with Neil Weatherhogg, who not only is a brilliant theologian — so he understands what is going on better than I do — but also is a really good writer. He thought this was an interesting project, so in June of 2014, we started messing around with a paraphrase of the psalm that would retain the meaning of the psalm but also make it something that would be applicable to now.”

You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

McQuere, 70, came to Washburn University in 2002 as dean of arts and sciences, a position he held for 11 years. Then, in 2013, he went back to faculty status for three years, serving as a professor of music theory and composition. He retired after the spring semester of 2016 but continues to teach part-time at Washburn.

McQuere said in his way of composing music, “the lyrics always come first.” He said Weatherhogg took on the project enthusiastically and the two collaborated via email throughout the effort, making sure the correct words were selected that not only would be biblically accurate, but appropriate for the musical piece.

As he began putting notes onto a musical score two years ago, McQuere said he was fortunate in being able to compose the music with a certain set of musicians in mind — namely those who would be performing the cantata at First Presbyterian Church.

“When you are composing music for a certain group of musicians, you can tailor it to their strengths and weaknesses,” McQuere said. “In this case, it’s mostly strengths. You know about how far you can go with that.”

Soloists, all of whom are from the First Presbyterian Church chancel choir, will be soprano Jessica Crowder; alto Elizabeth Cochrane; tenor Steve Crouch; and baritone Elliot Lauxman.

“These four soloists are wonderful people whose voices I know very very well,” McQuere said. “We hear them on a regular basis here in church, so I could tailor these arias to their own forms of excellence, and this is something that was fun to do.”

In addition to the First Presbyterian Church chancel choir, other performers on Sunday will include organist Song Yi Park and a string quartet from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

The cantata will be directed by Kevin Kellim, who is music director at First Presbyterian Church. Kellim also is director of choral activities at Washburn University and is well-known locally for his work as director of the Topeka Festival Singers.

Overall, McQuere said, the response from those involved in the project has been extremely positive.

“They’ve been very gracious with their compliments, and I sense them getting excited about making this thing come to life,” McQuere said. “I’m so grateful to have these wonderful musicians to work with — really top-level musicians.”

Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

When approached by McQuere about collaborating on “Psalm 51,” Weatherhogg was immediately impressed with the project.

“I sat down with Gordon in June of 2014,” Weatherhogg recalled. “He told me about his dream to do a major composition on Psalm 51 and asked if I would be interested in doing the lyrics, which would be a paraphrase — not a translation — of Psalm 51.

“It sounded like a very exciting project to me, so I began working on it. I had to go back and dust off some of my Hebrew books from seminary — I haven’t used them too much in recent years — and looked at some of the original texts and some different English translations. Then I sort of let my poetic mind wander.

“It’s expanded from what you would find in the Scripture. It was a very collaborative process. As I went along, I would shoot an email over to Gordon, because every now and then I’d come up with words that didn’t sing too well.

“Then I wrote a 52-page exegesis on the psalm, so I would have a basic understanding of the meaning of the psalm. I wanted to be true to the original text, even though it’s elaborated on a good bit.”

Weatherhogg, 77, came to First Presbyterian Church in 1994 and remained as pastor until 2005.

He said Psalm 71 is one of seven “penitential psalms” from the Psalter, which includes 150 psalms.

“It’s certainly the outstanding psalm of remorse and sorrow,” Weatherhogg noted. “Much more extensive than the others.”

Weatherhogg, who is pastor emeritus at First Presbyterian Church, said Psalm 51 is commonly used during the Lenten season, a 40-day period of penitence, prayer and alms-giving that precedes the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which will take place on Sunday, April 16.

He said as he and McQuere discussed an appropriate time for the cantata to be performed, they agreed that “Palm Sunday world work very well.”

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the final days of Lent, recounting the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Lent concludes four days later with Maundy Thursday observances. Many Christians then commemorate the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples, Jesus’ betrayal and trial and then the crucifixion on Good Friday, before Easter is celebrated the following Sunday.

Weatherhogg said that in his estimation, the Psalm 51 climaxes in verse 10, in which the psalmist cries out to God to “create in me a clean heart.”

The connection of Psalm 51 to the Easter season hinges on the plea for God’s forgiveness.

“One of the interpretations of the atonement of Christ’s death on the cross is that he took the sins of the world world upon him,” Weatherhogg said, “and so it would certainly be appropriate as a congregation, as a people, as individuals, for us to beseech pardon from God for our sins.

“It’s a way of preparing ourselves, and really that’s the whole idea behind Lent. It’s a penitential season when we, through introspection and other things, review our life and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter.”

O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;

if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

While McQuere will be in the choir for the debut of “Psalm 51,” Weatherhogg said he will “get to sit out in the congregation on Sunday and just enjoy it.”

Weatherhogg said, “This is the first time I’ve ever attempted something like this. Through my years as a pastor, I would sometimes write my own stanzas to familiar hymn tunes. But certainly nothing on this scale.

“Anything that is original with you is very exciting to see. You’ve got the bones of it, but to put the flesh and everything else on it is just very exciting to see happen.”

Contact reporter Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/