A few months into his new job as music minister for Sacred Heart Cathedral, Mike Accurso got an assignment from Michael Burbidge, then bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh.
It was February 2016 and the diocese was already planning the dedication of the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, the long-awaited new mother church, the first sacred building of its scale to be built in the United States in decades and one of the crowning achievements of the diocese under Burbidge’s tenure.
The dedication event would need an original soundtrack.
“A hymn,” Burbidge told Accurso. The church wanted to commission Accurso to write a hymn to be played during the procession at the dedication mass – which begins at 2 p.m. Wednesday – that would match the grandeur of the building and the elation of the moment, represent the diversity of the 54-county diocese, be easy for congregants to learn and run long enough to allow about 300 church officials and dignitaries to walk in.
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Accurso, 28, had never aspired to be a composer nor trained as one. But he was not a novice composer, having written a collection of service pieces that put certain psalms to music, as well as one piece that he says he would feel comfortable including in a concert of sacred music.
“I was flattered, of course, and very honored,” he said, and a little daunted.
Burbidge told Accurso he wanted the hymn to be general enough that a shorter version of it could be used in other services, not just for the dedication.
“Then he let me choose the text,” Accurso said.
It took weeks to find the right Biblical passage, he said, and it came to him one Sunday during mass when Psalm 145 was used in a liturgy. “I will extol you, My God and King, and bless your name forever and ever,” the verse begins. The name of the hymn would be, “I will Praise Your Name Forever.”
With the text in hand, Accurso had to work on the music. He approached it logically: Where could he go for a crash course on what makes for a successful hymn, one that is complex enough to be interesting but has familiar elements that make it comfortable for a congregation to sing?
“I went on YouTube,” Accurso said. “I started listening to a lot of hymns, and thinking very critically about what makes a hymn successful.”
Accurso said he started the song with a perfect fifth, a musical interval that is so common and friendly to the ear that Accurso thinks it probably occurs in nature. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is based on a perfect fifth.
As the cathedral was being built, Accurso built its hymn. Using native speakers to preserve the poetry of the scripture and the meter of the music, Accurso wrote verses in eight languages – all the major languages represented in the diocese. He added vocal parts, and orchestration. The diocese sent copies of the hymn out to all its parishes, so congregations could learn it ahead of the cathedral’s opening.
With the building still under construction, Accurso had to go on faith that the hymn would achieve its goals during the dedication service. The cathedral’s massive C.B. Fisk custom-built organ won’t be in place until sometime next year, and a magnificent Bosendorfer piano coming from an Eastern North Carolina donor isn’t on hand yet, either.
Phoenix Organs, which has a representative who lives in the diocese, has provided the church with a digital replica of the pipe organ, and a temporary piano is in place. Another parish member who helps craft movie scores made a recording of the hymn with a digital orchestra, pulled from samples of every note at every dynamic of every instrument.
Rehearsals this week for the diocesan choir – made up of the cathedral’s 20 regular choir members plus 50 or so additional singers from across the diocese – were the first Accurso got to hear with a live orchestra playing the hymn in the house for which it was designed.
Wednesday, the sound will swell again as an estimated 2,000 congregants join in the refrain.
See the dedication
The dedication of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral will begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 26. Tickets for the event are all taken, but it will be broadcast live on the diocese YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/DioceseofRaleigh.
The first public mass at the cathedral will begin at 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 29, followed by a full slate of masses on Sunday morning. For a schedule, go to www.sacredheartcathedral.org.