Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Local composer Ethan McGrath has written a musical composition to commemorate Second Presbyterian Church's 150th anniversary.

His challenge was to commemorate 150 years of a church's ministry as well inspire the congregation's future endeavors.

Local composer Ethan McGrath has accomplished that in a choral piece he was commissioned to write for the 150th anniversary of Second Presbyterian Church. The downtown church will celebrate its sesquicentennial in a weekend of events Friday through Sunday, Sept. 3-5, at the church, 700 Pine St. McGrath's work will highlight the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

"Music has been and continues to be very much a part of our worship at Second Presbyterian," says Suzanne Rushworth, a member of the anniversary committee. "Commissioning a musical piece is a special and permanent way to commemorate this important event in the life of our church."

Second Presbyterian Church was founded Sept. 3, 1871, with 14 members who met in homes. Church history states at the time the church was founded, members were not able to meet regularly because the city was besieged with a cholera outbreak and yellow fever; ironically, 150 years later, the church is again adjusting its meetings to combat spread of another health threat, COVID-19.

The first church building was built in 1878 at the corner of Eighth and Chestnut streets and its current location in 1891. In 1980, the church was named to the National Register of Historic Places.


Note: Masks are required at all indoor events.

Friday, Sept. 3

* 7-9 p.m. Birthday celebration with cupcakes and music by Zach Tyler Quintet

Saturday, Sept. 4

* 1 p.m. Sherry Cothran performs on guitar

* 1:45 p.m. Second Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, directed by Kevin Ford

* 2:30 p.m. David Friberg performs on organ

* 3-5 p.m. Open house

Sunday, Sept. 5

* 11 a.m. Worship service with debut of Ethan McGrath’s commissioned work and a performance of a piece by Ken Keese that was commissioned for the church’s 100th anniversary

Source: Second Presbyterian Church

Second Presbyterian was served by 10 male pastors before calling its first female minister, the Rev. Cathy Meyer, this year. Over 15 decades, the church's outreach has continued to evolve to meet the needs of its surrounding community, from leading drives on behalf of the Red Cross and Liberty Bonds during World War I to housing the homeless in its St. Matthew Shelter since 1984.

Church history also shows that Second Presbyterian's congregation opted not to relocate to the suburbs as the city grew, but to remain in downtown Chattanooga. Although its membership spread throughout Hamilton County and into North Georgia, the church found its mission in serving residents of urban neighborhoods. The church also opened its doors to nonprofits in need of meeting space, including Chattanooga Boys Choir, READ, Al-Anon, grief counseling, Choral Arts Society and tai chi classes.

McGrath grew up in Collegedale and graduated with a music degree in composition from UTC in 2014. He studied composing in Europe and received a master's degree in choral studies in 2017 from the University of Cambridge. His composition "Nunc Dimittis" won first place in the Musica Sacra Nova competition in Poland and the work was premiered in July 2018 by the Choir of Trinity College.

Second Presbyterian choral director Kevin Ford says he chose McGrath to compose the commissioned piece because "his work has been noticed and published not only nationally but internationally and his music has been sung by some of the best choirs in the world.

"He has a knack for writing beautiful, melodic music that isn't trite but evocative of the subject as expressed in the text," Ford concludes.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Kevin Ford, director of choral activities at UTC and choral director at Second Presbyterian Church, rehearses music with local composer Ethan McGrath, at piano.

When McGrath accepted the commission six months ago, he says the first step was to find an appropriate text that fit the occasion. He and Ford searched numerous texts before settling on "Dear Shepherd of Thy People" by John Newton, who is most known for writing "Amazing Grace."

Newton says he let its words of dedication "live in my head for awhile" before putting anything on paper.

"I usually will make notes about phrasing of the lines, what the rhythms of the words suggest. I'll sing through lines that come to my head. But for this I actually had the melody for the music in my head before I started writing, Each verse of the poem has the same structure, meter, rhyme scheme, so they suggest the same melody for each verse," he says.

So whereas Newton's 4/4 meter rigidly marches along in four quarter notes to the measure, McGrath's melody is more lyrical and flows with the words. It begins with the alto section, joined by the soprano on the second verse before concluding with full choir.

"It is a well-written piece that has a beautiful melody that fits the text very well," says Ford. "Harmonically, it is interesting without being overdone to the point of confusion."

"I hope it will be meaningful to listeners because it is such an important occasion in the church's history," says McGrath. "I hope it will be uplifting."

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