I will admit that I am a sucker for dramatic handbell music. The first time I heard “Grazioso” by Arnold Sherman or Cathy Moklebust’s “First Noel” or Sandra Eithum’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I immediately fell in love. Well written, inventive pieces that leave plenty of room for the group to express themselves musically are hard to find, but when I do I’m instantly a fan. Robert Lamb’s new arrangement of “Nearer, My God, To Thee” is a piece that captured my love for the same reasons as soon as I heard it.
If Robert Lamb’s name isn’t familiar, don’t worry. “Nearer, My God, To Thee” is his first published work for handbells. As a student at Westminster Choir College, Robert immersed himself in music composition and performance for handbells and choir. While this obviously isn’t his first piece for handbells, it gained the attention of the publishing community through the College Ring-In.
I had the fortune of ringing next to Robert at the 2016 College Ring-In. During the event there was a time for participants to share their music with the group in an unpublished reading session. While there were many fantastic pieces presented, something about Robert’s piece captivated the group. Somehow his writing was both simple and complex, capturing immense emotion in an easy to play piece. The clinician, Michael Joy, was so enamored with the piece he added it to the conference’s final concert. On the final verse he lowered his arms and let the group play on their own. As the final chord was stuck there was not a dry eye in the room. Standing next to Robert, I could see the genuine look surprise and gratitude on his face. He had no idea the piece would be so popular, and we had no idea that moment would be one of the highlights of the conference.
When Robert passed out the piece to the group, he told the story of it’s composition to everyone. Rather than try and convey the message myself, here are Robert’s own words about the piece,
Inspired by the text “Nearer, My God, to Thee” by Sarah F. Adams and Edward H. Bickersteth, Jr, this arrangement of the hymn tune “Bethany” explores the many emotions we face when life is at its end: grief, doubt, hope, and acceptance. Set in Dorian mode, the mournful first verse represents the pain and fear of a person’s final moments. Uncertain of what lies ahead, we wander through an unfamiliar place in the second verse, which is now set in Mixolydian mode. As we approach the third verse, we begin our long awaited ascent. Joyful and uplifting, we finally hear the hymn tune in its major form, symbolizing the hope and promise of Heaven. Having reached our final destination, we are now greeted by the angels and saints who came before us. Having found our new home, we rest in the knowledge that God’s love will always keep us safe. We are at peace.
Beckenhorst publishing took a chance on the piece, which is out now for purchase. As a level 3 piece, I think it would make a fantastic piece for massed ringing. I usually try to avoid obviously selling things on the blog, but I would love to see this piece do well.
There are a plethora of young composers across the handbell community with a whole variety of new music for bells just waiting to be played. When College Ring-In was designed, the unpublished reading session was built in specifically for this reason. At your local and regional festivals, encourage new composers to try out their music. You never know what you may find.