‘The least of us’: The Crossing premieres hymns written for an imagined religion

Composer David Lang wrote “poor hymnals” for a congregation solely focused on helping the less fortunate.

Donald Nally conducts in the foreground. In the background, members of The Crossing sing.

Conductor Donald Nally leads The Crossing in a rehearsal of David Lang's''poor hymnal,'' at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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This weekend The Crossing choir is premiering “poor hymnal,” a new work of original hymns invented for an imagined religion that does not exist.

Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang devised a set of songs intended to be sung by a congregation whose sole spiritual goal is the aid of others in need.

“I was a stranger. I was the least of us,” sing the members of The Crossing. “You saw me, and you loved me as you love yourself.”

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“I’m a fairly religious person. I grew up in a faith. It’s important to me,” said Lang, who is Jewish. “I’ve associated that with being a musician. Sitting in my studio thinking about the things my religion asks of me — to be kind to the poor, to be welcoming to the stranger, to visit the sick — I take them seriously and don’t do them nearly as much as I should.”

Composer David Lang poses for a photo, looking up, with a book in hand while seated in an armchair.
Composer David Lang leafs through old hymn books a the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, where The Crossing choir was rehearsing his work, “poor hymnal.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lang admits he has not imagined an entire theology for his fictitious religion, he just wrote the music for it. The hymns repeat lines that evoke charity, compassion, and empathy.

Most religions, if not all, have some component that encourages people to help other people. But Lang said oftentimes that charity is tied up with the ultimate goal: to praise a higher power.

“I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who is more religious than me, but it seems like the kindness that you are showing is a byproduct of something else,” he said. “This piece is trying to say: The reason we are coming together is to remember how important we are to each other, to remember how important it is that we take care of each other.”

If there is a subtle criticism in Lang’s work of the leniency people allow themselves to shirk their duty of compassion to strangers, then his chief target is himself.

“I live in New York. New York has homeless people and people who need help all the time. In order to live in this city you have to be able to tune that out,” admits Lang. “The point of that piece is, at least for me: What would it be like to actually pay attention to the people who are around you?”

“I’m too busy indicting myself to indict anybody else,” he said.

The text of his hymnals is a mash-up of lines he pulls from a variety of sources, sometimes creating strange bedfellows: The 4th century bishop St. Basil said that your extra coat is not yours but should rightfully belong to someone who needs it; that is paired with a 2012 statement made by President Barack Obama on the campaign trail, “You didn’t build that,” implying entrepreneurs do not build businesses in a vacuum but are supported by social programs and government incentives.

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“Maybe everything I’ve done is based on something from someone else,” said Lang. “Maybe I owe something to someone else.”

Donald Nally conducts members of The Crossing as they sing during a rehearsal.
Conductor Donald Nally leads The Crossing in a rehearsal of David Lang’s”poor hymnal,” at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lang also pairs the Old Testament with Mahatma Gandhi: In Psalm 27 King David begs the Lord to reveal his face, and Gandhi said some people are so poor that God does not appear to them except in the form of bread.

When Lang first heard that line sung by The Crossing — “Some of us can’t see your face, unless we see it in a piece of bread” — he was surprised by the emotional impact it had on him. He wasn’t expecting to be moved.

“There are things that are just so simple that I was embarrassed to write them. I just couldn’t believe something which was so plain spoken and ordinary and unadorned would have power,” he said. “I was shocked at how emotional some of these things ended up being. Many of the singers came up to me and said, ‘It’s really hard to sing this piece because we’re, like, crying while we’re singing.’”

Composer Donald Nally is seen from behind as he conducts a rehearsal. Singers in "The Crossing" are visible singing in the background.
Conductor Donald Nally leads The Crossing in a rehearsal of David Lang’s”poor hymnal,” at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The ordinariness of the hymn is what attracted Lang to the musical format. A hymn is designed to be simple enough so a congregation of untrained singers can join together to sing statements and sentiments they all agree upon.

Lang, who has a doctorate in music and teaches composition at Yale University, has a reputation for writing difficult and nuanced pieces that can be challenging even for highly trained musicians. Several of his pieces have been performed by The Crossing, a virtuosic choir that has won three Grammy awards.

Lang is also a great admirer of Charles Ives, the modernist American composer who started out writing simple hymns for the church in his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut.

Lang discovered writing simple hymns is really hard.

“Of course, I can’t turn some things off, and my piece is actually pretty hard,” he said. “But I am hoping that people in some congregation someplace will find one or two that they will be able to do, and might become useful for them.”

The Crossing premieres “poor hymnal” this weekend with two performances: on Friday night at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in West Philly, and on Sunday at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. There are no additional performances scheduled, but Lang said The Crossing plans to record the piece very soon for release.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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