“Bless the Lord,” by Jacques Berthier;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2013
Bless the Lord, my soul,
And bless God's holy name.
Bless the Lord, my soul,
Who leads me into life.*
“Jesus, Remember Me,” by Jacques Berthier;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 488
Jesus, remember me
When you come into your kingdom. (Luke 23:42)
“Bless the Lord” and “Jesus, Remember Me” are among the best-known refrains from the Taizé Community in France. Short songs that draw upon Scripture are not just the province of contemporary Christian composers. The transmission of Scripture through singing is also essential to the worship of the ecumenical community of Taizé in France. “Bless the Lord” draws its inspiration from Psalm 103; "Jesus, Remember Me" is a short refrain that quotes Luke 23:42. Short songs such as these are common to the Taizé Community.
The Taizé Community has become a place of pilgrimage for young people from around the world. In July 1940, Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche (1915-2005), a Reformed minister, arrived in the tiny community of Taizé in the southeastern part of France. In response to the conditions of occupied France, he cast his lot with the poor and disadvantaged.
Brother Roger, as he became known, had a dream to live in community with others who would practice the essential dimensions of the gospel in a manner that would offer a response of Christian reconciliation and hope in the face of the horrors of the war. He found a place for such a community in the village of Taizé, just north of Cluny, a site of one of the great medieval monastic traditions of the church a thousand years earlier.
After 1960, young people sought out Taizé as a pilgrimage destination in the years following World War II. The brothers were surprised that these young pilgrims, usually between 18 and 30, would seek out such a secluded location. Their numbers increased to thousands in the summers and during Holy Week. In the manner of a monastic community, brothers and pilgrims alike gathered to pray three times a day.
Before the presence of so many young people, the brothers borrowed the psalm settings of Father Joseph Gelineau (1920-2008), whose liturgical music was increasingly used in Catholic parishes in France. While the brothers appreciated his music, it proved not to be as useful for multilingual pilgrims because of its musical complexity and textual intricacy. The intimate prayers in the old stone village church (parts of which were 1000 years old) in Taizé with its marvelous acoustics gave way to a new and larger space that would accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims. A simpler, more meditative music was needed to allow all who attended to pray together. The physician Brother Robert (1923-1993), one of the first seven members of the Taizé Community, became the community’s first musician; and he developed the basic concept of what has become known as the music of Taizé.
Brother Jean-Marie, a current member of the community and one of the primary cantors for daily prayer, noted that the larger groups brought liturgical changes:
Changes in the liturgy were now necessary. If the young people were to pray with us and not just watch or listen to us pray, we would have to adapt and simplify some things. And things were changing. For many people, the very language of faith was becoming harder to grasp. Times were changing. People were no longer coming to church to receive a teaching or to do their devotions or to fulfill religious and social obligations, as they had done for centuries. If they were coming, it was for different and more personal reasons: to find rest and refreshment, to live their lives with more meaning, or just to maintain a connection with God or else with the church they had grown up with. It was also becoming harder for people to listen and retain what they heard. Modern life was noisier and more stressful (Brother Jean-Marie of Taizé, 2006, 45).
In 1974, Brother Robert shared his ideas, along with brief texts mainly selected from Scripture, with Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), a composer and friend of Taizé who became instrumental in providing music for the three daily prayers. Dr. Berthier was organist of Saint-Ignace Church in Paris. He maintained a close relationship with the community, helping them devise songs that could be easily sung by the young people coming from around the world. This accessible music includes a variety of forms — chorales, ostinatos (short, repetitive refrains), acclamations, responses and canons — that worshipers with radically diverse liturgical and linguistic backgrounds are able to participate in immediately.
Even after Brother Roger's tragic murder during a prayer service in August 2005, the work of this ecumenical community has continued—with approximately one hundred brothers who come from all over the globe. The overarching theme of Taizé is reconciliation through prayer. The brothers provide hospitality for thousands of pilgrims each year, and they also serve in some of the poorest and most helpless situations in the world.
The usual Taizé service is based upon the historic service of daily prayer. Singing, silence, Scripture (usually read in several languages), and prayer permeate morning, midday, and evening prayers. The service draws from more contemplative roots where silence and reflection are central to worship and mantra-like music allows the participants to center their thoughts on the adoration of God. Church music scholar Judith Marie Kubicki comments on the accessibility of Taizé chants:
The simplicity and repetition of the musical format has the potential to draw in even the most hesitant of singers…. The multiplicity of melodic and harmonic elements, as well as the variety of languages employed, communicates the idea that diversity is not only tolerated but welcomed (Kubicki, 1999, 178).
To the average Protestant worshiper in the United States, prayer in the Taizé Community with fewer words and extended periods of silence may be at once disturbing and refreshing.
Taizé songs are sung in several languages, including Latin during the prayers. Latin is common because it is a historical language of the church and, since few speak it currently, places everyone on a common footing, unifying the singers in the mystery of prayer.
Jacques Berthier composed both “Bless the Lord” and “Jesus, Remember Me” in English. They appeared first in the United States in a collection entitled Songs and Prayers from Taizé (1991) through arrangement with GIA Publishing, Inc., the sole USA distributor of Taizé music. The songs in this collection were, however, in use in the community before this. Earlier versions of “Bless the Lord” concluded with “who rescues me from death,” but the last phrase was changed later to “who leads me into life.” These brief songs are often effective when sung during the receiving of the bread and cup during Holy Communion.
For more information on the Taizé Community, visit www.taize.fr.
*© 1998, Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, Taizé Community, France; GIA Publications, Inc., exclusive North American agent, 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638; www.giamusic.com; (800) 442-1358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For further reading:
Batastini, Bob. "Taizé." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 9, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/taizé.
Gonzales Balado, J.L. The Story of Taizé, 3rd ed. New York: Continuum, 2003.
Jean-Marie of Taizé, “Jubilate Deo Award: Building a Bridge of Reconciliation.” Pastoral Music 31:1 (October-November 2006), 45.
Kubicki, Judith Marie. Liturgical Music as Ritual Symbol: A Case Study of Jacques Berthier’s Taizé Music. Leuven, The Netherlands: Peeters, 1999.
Watson, J. R. "Jacques Berthier." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 9, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jacques-berthier.
C. Michael Hawn is the University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program, for Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.