Third Annual Choral Music Festival and Concerts

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It's hard to believe the event could get any better... Rich harmonies from about 150 talented voices filled the 1,200-seat Baha'i House of Worship auditorium with uplifting scriptural music at two free public concerts on Sunday May 24, 2009.

It is estimated that about 700 people attended the 10:00 a.m. concert and perhaps 900 at the 12:30 p.m. program.

Van Gilmer directs the choir during the concert on May 24, 2009. Photo by Eric VanZanten

The Choral Music Festival concerts, held annually at the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, Ill., have been a huge success since the Festival began in 2007.

This year, the director and the choir seemed to shine even more brightly.

"We LOVED it," exclaimed one visitor who tried to describe how much he and his wife enjoyed the concert. "It will be hard (impossible really) to describe the feeling of being in your lovely sanctuary; watching the interaction between the Maestro Gilmer and the choir and listening to the beautiful music."

The Third Annual Baha'i Choral Festival built on tremendously successful prior events in 2007 and 2008. This year, the group of about 150 singers from around the the U.S., Canada--and even one soloist from Uganda, Africa--assembled for multi-day rehearsals, workshops and performances beginning on Thursday afternoon, May 21.

Gilmer describes it as "miraculous" that the choir members are able to perform so beautifully together after just a few days of practice.

The concerts on Sunday were a cappella (without instruments) and included classical liturgical music of the Baha'i Faith and other religions, as well as gospel music and other multicultural selections. The diverse selection of 14 songs included: the Negro Spiritual, "I'm Going Back to the Father"; a song about the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, "O Baha'u'llah"; and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." (Concert program, including devotional selections and recordings of each song)

Photo by Eric VanZanten

After the second concert, the choir members filed outside to pose for photos and pleased the crowd by singing a few songs on the steps of the Temple.

Choir poses for photos after 2nd concert, 24 May 2009.
Photo courtesy of www.ageless-northshore.com

Baha'i Choral Festival Director, Van Gilmer, is the House of Worship's Director of Music and an internationally known performer, choir director, composer and writer/winner of the Best Gospel Song at the 2006 Independent Music Awards.

Gilmer revels in assembling choirs to sing scripture of the world's religions, celebrate God and inspire audiences with rich, heavenly harmonies that reach the heart and soul.

Comcast cable television subscribers in Cook County, Ill will have the opportunity to watch an hour-long broadcast of the choral concert at 7:30 p.m. on four consecutive Mondays: June 8, 15, 22 and 29.  (If you are a Cook County, Ill resident and Comcast subscriber, check Comcast to see which channel - either 19 or 35 - provides local programming in your area.)   

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Battle Hymn of the Republic

I attended the afternoon concert on May 24th, 2009. It was a beautiful performance. However, I do not understand how a song that glorifies war can be sung in the Sacred Bahai Temple. I find these types of songs sung in Catholic churches (in accordance with the Catholic protocol of "Just War.") Someone please explain to me what place the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has in Bahai theology.

Response from Music Director, Van Gilmer

Your recent comment on the Bahai.us website was directed to me [Van Gilmer] for response.  I will try to answer your thoughtful question.  Also, I appreciate the thought you gave to hearing the unexpected in such a sacred space as exists at the Baha’i House of Worship for the North American Continent.

I did expect that use of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” would raise a question in some minds about its use in the Baha’i House of Worship.  For me, it was the use of a song that personifies the spirit that occurred in about the beginning of the eighteenth century in Europe where a “new influence” swept across the land that the Promised One of All Ages” would come….that Christ would return!

The many details of this are contained in George Townsend’s book, Christ and Baha’u’llah, page 61, where he notes that well known writers and poets had turned their attention to the RETURN OF CHRIST and that it played a significant part in influencing their writings during the latter part of 1800.

The songs in the House of Worship are limited to a cappella songs based on any of the Holy Scriptures of any of the world’s religions.  Must be sacred and may be any such hymns or music about and of God.  Whenever I choose music for this sacred building, I first research words and then comes the process of selecting the appropriate sacred music to accompany the words.

Also, note that man’s prior use of music compositions is not necessarily an indication of the true meaning of the words used.  In the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” you will not hear any words glorifying war.  It is based on the enthusiasm of the American poet, Julia Ward, who wrote in 1861, two years before Baha’u’llah, the prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, proclaimed that He was the return of the spirit of Christ.  She wrote the opening lines to the song: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.  His truth is marching on.”  Its chorus rings out over and over again: “Glory, glory Hallelujah His truth is marching on!”  The only word change I made was in the sentence “Let us DIE to make men free!”  We sang: “Let us LIVE to make men free!”  While people may have used it as a “war” song, it was obviously NOT the way it was originally intended.  Just think of the verse, “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with the GLORY in His bosom that transfigures you and me.”

In our concert, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was placed just before Handel’s “Lift Up Your Heads” from the Messiah.  In the past, many have thought both songs to be only about Christ.  For Baha’is, it is clearly about the coming of “The King of GLORY,” Baha’u’llah, which is Arabic for “The Glory of God.”  These particular songs were placed in Part 2 of the concert under the theme: God Never Leaves Us Alone, Rejoice!  Both have to do with the coming of the GLORY of the Lord!

As I am writing this, one letter from a venerable Baha’i who lived during World Wars I and II continues to come to my mind.  In part, she wrote:

“Dear and precious Van,
At last I've been able to listen to the concert all the way thru. It is simply wonderful, Van…   Did people have programs, so that they could take home the words of all that gorgeous stuff? The Battle Hymn of the Republic always makes me weep, so I wept a bit. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make them free. And did they ever, simply mowed down on open fields. Thank you, and again thank you.”

Thank God that we have received more positive things about the use of the song than the “war” connotation.  I hope this gives some insight to its use in the program this year.

With warmest regards,

That's a very good question.

That's a very good question. We love that song because of it's mention of the Glory of God who we believe is Baha'u'llah. It mentions excerpts from the Bible related to war. It is an historical song. Baha'u'llah does teach that war will cease and that swords will be beat into plow shares. Van changed some of the words of the song to say we are now peace loving. It's a challenging time we live in. It would take some study of the Writings of Baha'u'llah to understand how peace will ultimately prevail and the kingdom of God will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven.


I am interested in registering for this year's choir. I was a sporano in the World Congress choir of 1992 in New York. Please send information. Thanks.

Are you interested in singing in the next Choral Festival?

The Fourth Annual Choral Music Festival will be held May 27-30, 2010. If you are interested in participating, write to Jeremy Pane at: jpane@usbnc.org or call: 847-853-2337 for more information.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

I was thrilled to see that the Battle Hymn of the Republic was sung at this festival. I am the Director of Music in a Christian church, (I am a Bahai), and like to choose this hymn to be sung during the last few Sundays of the church year, when the readings from the Bible are about the 2nd coming of Christ. Recently, I had a challenge by one of my professional singers, who is a Menonite, that he would not sing a "war song". What a joy to be able to tell him that it was not about war, but about the return of the Messiah! (it is actually listed in the Catholic hymnal under end times/2nd coming).

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