St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Saint Thomas Choir School, New York City, 2011

My cousin, John Calvin Mehrling of Waynesville, N.C., died unexpectedly Saturday, in a one-car accident on his way home from a live steam train outing across the mountains in Tennessee. Our extended family is scattered over two continents and (at least) five states, and John was the guy who kept us in touch and notified us of weddings, funerals and other life events. I’m going to miss him terribly.

John was a never-failing source of puns, railroad lore, corny jokes, shaggy-dog stories and political assertions that invariably led us to political arguments. He and I disagreed on just about every public policy issue known to humankind; and we often did so vociferously; but we did so respectfully. And, even in a time of “culture wars,” deep political animosity and polarization, we kept talking (or exchanging email messages). That in and of itself, I think, is pretty remarkable.

But I’ll remember John most as a guy who helped get me in touch with my heritage, both ethnic and spiritual. And who helped nurture in me a love of the older forms of choral music that — let’s face it! — isn’t, to put it mildly, shared by everyone in this era of praise bands, happy-clappy pop anthems and contemporary worship services.

John’s mother and my father were sister and brother. And their father, my grandfather, was a pastor in the old Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod. (As a kid, I thought his name was Bestefar, the Norwegian for “grandfather,” but it was Johan Ellertsen.) They moved around a lot — as pastors did in their day — but they settled in Brooklyn. I learned quite a bit about their heritage from my father, and he passed on to me a love for choral music he had developed as a youngster taking the subway from Brooklyn to recitals at the big churches in Manhattan, but I was too young to absorb it all. Or, it must be admitted, to pay much attention when he was reminiscing.

So when I joined a Lutheran church rather late in life, it was John I turned to when I had questions about Lutheran theology, a Bach cantata or, oh say for example, a Deutsche Grammophon record featuring Praetorius’ arrangements of the old Lutheran chorales that I remembered Dad playing when I was a kid. John was Missouri Synod and I joined an ELCA congregation (and, as a famous TV comedy sketch on Cheers once made clear, the two don’t always see eye to eye), but I learned to defer to his knowledge of Lutheran hymnody, theology and liturgics.

One of my favorite memories of John — there are so many to choose from — came when perhaps two dozen of Pastor Ellertsen’s descendants gathered for a weekend cousins’ reunion at Koinonia, a church camp in the Catskills. One of the highlights came when John made copies of chorales that Johann Walther arranged for Martin Luther’s first hymnals in the 1520s. “A Mighty Fortress” was one of them; “Christ Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” was another. (No happy-clappy stuff there!) My grandmother believed the family was descended from Walther, and we gathered around a keyboard to sing this part of family heritage in four-part harmony. It was a moment that seemed uniquely ours.

About the same time, when Bestefar’s old church in Brooklyn closed in 2014, John arranged for a group of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to sing an arrangement of 17th-century German theologian Paul Gerhardt’s chorale “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow” during its final service. I wasn’t able to be there, but I found it unexpectedly moving — and a reminder of what a rich legacy we have as a family. It’s a lovely piece of music, too.

John, with sisters Barbara and Christine, Brooklyn, 2014

None of this would have happened quite the way it did if it weren’t for John.

But his love of music, especially the older choral music, wasn’t parochial — it wasn’t strictly and only Lutheran. Another favorite memory — and a source of continuing enjoyment for reasons I’ll get to in a minute — came in 2014 when we visited the family on Long Island over spring break. While we were there, John organized an excursion down to “the City” for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which has the only residential choir school in the United States.

St. Thomas is a lovely Gothic Revival church, with acoustics to match, and the Matthew Passion, like Bach’s other oratorios, incorporates the older chorales, including several by Gerhardt. Originally written for a Good Friday service at Bach’s church in Leipzig (also named for St. Thomas), it is a profoundly moving piece of music. Since it was written to be performed by choirboys of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, it was a perfect match for the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys in New York City.

(The video at the top of this post shows the St. Thomas NYC choir closing out a choral evensong service with George S. Talbot’s setting of Psalm 150, “O Praise God in his holiness: praise him in the firmament of his power.” After John and Anne retired and moved to North Carolina, he continued to follow St. Thomas’ webcasts online, and he’d let me know when a particularly nice service was coming up.)

Hearing the St. Matthew Passion in live performance that spring weekend in 2014 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I sang in a little Lutheran church choir (or did before the pandemic), but mostly I get my choral music fix via CDs, mp3 downloads and YouTube.

A couple of weeks later, John sent me a CD in the mail. Not just any old interpretation, either. This was the 3-disc Archiv set of Karl Richter’s Matthäus Passion. Richter had Bach’s old job, as kantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, and, as a reviewer for the Classics Today website notes, he reflected “an unbroken Leipzig tradition that could be traced back to the time of Bach himself.” It’s one of the definitive recordings of the Passion.

I don’t think John thought any of this was a big deal. He was generous to a fault, and I think he was just happy to find someone else who shared his love of the music.

Last Christmas, when we were emailing back and forth about the Gabrieli Consort’s recording of the Praetorius Mass for Christmas Morning (also on the Archiv label), I happened to mention I only had an mp3 download without the liner notes. A few days later, a meticulously collated and stapled photocopy of the liner notes that came with John’s CD arrived in the mail. Another memory to cherish.

[Published June 14, 2022]

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