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Interview with Kevin Hildebrand and Matthew Machemer

“We’ve got the best jobs in the Missouri Synod.”

Kevin Hildebrand and his co-worker Matthew Machemer are kantors at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

But beyond that, they are talented organists, passionate composers, joyful teachers, and careful shapers of how future pastors view music ministry in the parish. Kevin and Matt recently sat down with us to talk about how they got started in music and to tell us the stories behind their new pieces for Lent.

Kevin, tell us what you do at the seminary.

Kevin: Matt and I share this office of kantor. That’s the person who’s in charge of leading the church’s song. And we do that leadership [at the seminary] through teaching students, playing the organ, directing choirs and instrumental groups, and teaching students how to sing. We’ve got the best jobs in the Missouri Synod.

Matt, when did you start playing organ?

Matt: I started playing piano when I was five years old. My dad was my first teacher. After about a year or so, he realized that it was easy, when your student lives at home with you, to skip lessons and make them up at other times. And I realized that it was easy to not listen to my dad as I did in other avenues of my life. So I started taking lessons then with a member from our church congregation. I didn’t really start the organ until the summer before my freshman year of college. I knew I wanted to study organ, I knew I wanted to be a church musician, but I focused pretty heavily on piano all through grade school and high school.

That summer before my freshman year, I asked my dad, now that I was much more mature at eighteen, of course, if he would give me a couple of crash-course lessons before I went to Concordia River Forest to audition for teachers’ and music scholarships. College, then, turned out to be a very formative time for me in terms of getting comfortable at the bench and getting that practical service-playing experience. But I didn’t do a lot of organ work until I got to Concordia.

Kevin, what was your very first composition?

Kevin: [In high school,] there was a woman in our choir who wrote a homemade Christmas song and she asked if I would write the melody down on paper, and I thought, “I’ll harmonize it.” I mean, these were not sophisticated things on my part, but then the next fall when I entered college, this must have come up in our music theory class. I was interested in doing some more serious study. The professor mentioned this to Carl Schalk, [who] said, “Send him over.” [Schalk] was very, very gracious. This was not good writing, but he said, “Just keep writing as much as you can, any biblical text, secular text. You’ll have a whole pile of stuff you never want to show anybody, but that’s how you get experience.”

A lot of people probably have the conception that because you’re at the seminary, you have unlimited musical forces. Why such compact, economical forces in the pieces you write?

Matt: A lot of the things that people see [at the seminary] are larger events. But really, the day-to-day music making at the seminary is very reflective of what you might find in your typical Lutheran parish. We’re working with our students, who, as [people] do in the parish, come from a variety of backgrounds, have a variety of musical abilities, and may or may not be as familiar with music making. [And] we have a limited amount of rehearsal time every week. So [these] types of things are some of the most important work we do at the seminary because it prepares our students for what they will encounter in the parish and teaches them that there are a variety of ways to do the Lutheran liturgy and the hymnody in a beautiful way. It doesn’t have to be big and bombastic and involve a multitude of musicians.

Kevin, let’s talk about one of the latest pieces you recently published, “The Gifts Christ Freely Gives.” How is the congregation involved in it?

Kevin: Like a typical hymn concertato, they’re taking their turn singing alternately with the choir. The text is new in Lutheran Service Book, and the tune is one of several tunes that was brought back into circulation. It existed in The Lutheran Hymnal from 1941 for the arrangement of Luther’s text, “Flung to the Heedless Winds,” sort of a little cento of his first hymn about those first Lutheran martyrs. Arguably, very few people sung and used that tune. But it’s one of those tunes that even if it’s less familiar, it sings itself very easily. . . . I try to model my writing for a typical church choir with limited rehearsal and good volunteer singers, trying to keep harmonies predictable but interesting. So I would hope [this piece] would be useful for a wide variety of settings. You don’t need an eight-part double choir and a brass sextet. Who has that sitting around?

Matt, let’s talk about your piece, “Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior.” One of the first things that struck me about this piece is that it is based on two hymn tunes. Can you tell us a little about that?

Matt: It was written for one of our seminary choirs here during Holy Week. They were singing on Maundy Thursday for chapel. The second tune that it’s based on is O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, or “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy,” which is a pretty common hymn both for the Lenten season and Holy Week. Ironically enough, I didn’t plan on using that hymn tune when I began composing, but I found myself playing around with a few ideas at the keyboard and slipped in and out of things that sounded like that. After I took a closer look at the text and put the tunes together, it became its final product. . . . Perhaps some of that was because, like I said, I wrote it initially for Maundy Thursday. You’re kind of drawn to think about the Lord’s Passion and the events of that last week of His life, so it made “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy” and “Thee We Adore” come together with a little bit more of an obvious connection to me perhaps than it would have been at another time in the Church Year.

What new choral music do you have coming out next?

Kevin: There’s a new hymn setting with text by Lisa Clark and a tune by myself. It’s a choral and brass setting that was written for a local St. Louis church anniversary. And there’s a two-part setting of the John 3:16 text. It couples that text with the hymn “God Loved the World So That He Gave.”

Matt: I have a setting of Luther’s creed hymn, “We All Believe in One True God.” It’s a hymn concertato for congregation, two or three instruments, and unison choir. It’s kind of a pseudo-baroque-sounding type of composition. And then [I have] a choral piece that was commissioned by a church in Michigan. The text is “The Day of Resurrection” from LSB but with a new tune for three-part choir (SAB) and a part for optional congregation at the very end.

Want to learn more?

Watch the full interview on our YouTube channel.

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Written by

Peter Reske

Peter C. Reske, senior editor of music/worship at Concordia Publishing House, holds degrees in English literature and historical musicology from Marquette University and The Pennsylvania State University. He was the editor of Lutheran Service Book and its attendant resources.


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