Music lost a great champion this week with the death of Norman Scribner, who served St. Alban’s as Music Director for 47 years, as well as being the founder and long-time conductor of The Choral Arts Society of Washington. Yesterday’s Washington Post carried his obituary, and having known Norman for nearly 20 years, I couldn’t agree more with its closing paragraph, where the paper’s music critic was quoted from a review of his final concert with the Choral Arts Society in 2012: Scribner is one of music’s most devout acolytes. He takes it exactly as it is. He venerates [music] but does not pontificate; …[he] conducted as if he wanted to stand aside and give the music center stage. The writer captured the essence of the man in those few words – his humility and his unfailing sense of servant-hood. To music. To his family. To God.
What I know is that Norman saw music as a gift from God, that music and his faith were interwoven in ways that often took me by surprise. His single-minded focus on getting it right – zeroing in on a problem and fixing it – was one of the ways he demonstrated to me his clarity about music as God’s gift to us, a gift worth taking seriously and treating with utmost care and respect.
So many pieces of music come to mind when thinking about Norman – Brahms’ Requiem, Bernstein’s Mass, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Haydn’s Creation (he considered Haydn to be the finest composer, so he told me). I’m sure there will concerts dedicated to his memory that include one or more of these great works. But my memory of Norman is tied up with the quiet moments before communion at St. Alban’s, when the choir sings a brief, intimate piece that invites people in to a few minutes of contemplative preparation for the Sacrament. Here is one of his favorites: I sat down under his shadow by Edward Bairstow.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house
and his banner over me was love.
— Song of Songs 2:3b-4
You were always aware that you sat in God’s shadow, Norman, and you took great delight in doing so. May His healing hands be on your beloved family now, and on all of us that mourn your passing from this life to the next.
The service at St. Alban’s on Sunday, June 7 at 10:00 am will be celebrated in memory of Norman, honoring his many years of devotion to making music in the church.