For midday prayer Sept. 23 at the St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington, one might think the musical program would be fairly stuffed with Gregorian chant and the musical stylings of the Renaissance. But you would be wrong.
It’s true that there were a few selections from the Renaissance era, but the 20th-century was fairly well represented, with works by Francis Poulenc, Pierre Villette and Gustav Holst. There were even pieces from living composers, Robert LeBlanc and Daniel Gawthrop among them.
One of those living composers has a chance to make a mark on the 21st century, since he is only 24 years old. John Henderson composed an antiphon to Psalm 17, replete with vocal, brass and organ arrangements.
Henderson picked up his bachelor’s degree at The Catholic University of America in Washington in composition, although he also studied, piano, organ and conducting. He further refined his skills with a master’s degree in composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Today, Henderson is the music director and organist at St. Bernadette Parish in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.
He said he was commissioned by the cathedral to compose the antiphon. The work took about two months, according to Henderson. “We exchanged drafts and notes. I started with the refrain and developed the rest of the piece from there.” The work had its world premiere at the prayer service.
Not all of his pieces take that long to compose. In his one year at the helm of the St. Bernadette music ministry, Henderson already has introduced 30 pieces to his choir. “But some of them are short, like 30 seconds short,” he noted.
With the cathedral antiphon, as with his St. Bernadette compositions, “I write for the choir that’s going to sing it.” The cathedral choir sang the piece, with a musical assist from the Washington Symphonic Brass. “The cathedral choir, I know what they’re good at,” Henderson said. “And I know that the Washington Symphonic Brass’ capabilities are.”
Henderson said he got his interest in church music from an aunt, who herself was an organist and music director at a parish near his home in Pensacola, Florida. As a grade schooler, he even played a bit of organ at his home parish before going to a Catholic boys’ boarding school, St. Gregory Academy in Pennsylvania. “The liturgical life was very rich there,” he recalls. “I started composing there.”
Lest you think church music is all Henderson does, take heart; he did his time in a garage band as a teenager.