Music with Minnesotans: Spenser Simrill

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
September 4, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — It probably comes as no surprise that a minister would choose spiritual music for a playlist of the classical music that he would take with him if stranded on a desert island.

But what might surprise is that The Very Reverend Spencer D. Simrill should choose not only two hymns, but also one of the most passionate love songs from the entire library of musical literature.

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Spenser Simrill a few weeks back on one of those sweltering days we had in August. As Dean of the St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, I was grateful for the time he carved out of his schedule for me and for the illuminating words he shared about these pieces.

Two of his choices were written by early 20th century composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer Simrill says is close to his heart.

Simrill's life work is to minister to those in broken in spirit, who live out life's tragedies and disappointments. Vaughan Williams had his own spiritual struggles. He had two failed marriages and firsthand experience with the carnage of World War I, a war that left his hearing damaged irreparably.

Although Vaughan Williams called himself a "disappointed theist," he writes music that is immediately accessible and soothes the spirit. Both "The Call" from Five Mystical Songs and "Come Down, O Love Divine" lift us straight out of the mundane and into the realm of the divine.

Simrill is also attracted to the romantic passion of Puccini -- a cynical man that the church considered dangerous.

Giacomo Puccini was raised a Catholic and served as a church organist in his youth, but was largely cynical about religious subjects and considered dangerous by the church hierarchy. Nonetheless, the love duets from his operas are some of the greatest music in the repertoire, and -- sung by Luciano Pavarotti in particular -- greatly enjoyed by The Reverend Simrill.

Interestingly, Simrill feels a connection to the counter-cultural characters in "La Boheme," which he compares to his own life as a minister in a modern society. Though he notes the opera is one he simply loves to indulge in with his wife because of the heart-on-the-sleeve passion.

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Next week, join me as I welcome writer, lecturer, musician and athlete, Karen Hansen. She'll share wonderfully moving and energizing pieces that should give us all a desire to get up and run.

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