‘Always we begin again’. So wrote St Benedict, a 6th century monk whose monastic rule was lived out in our village for over 400 years at Redbourn Priory. This phrase came to mind as I was reflecting on my time in Redbourn where I have been living, working and serving this community for over one year. This has been a year which has included some wonderful community events such as the Living Advent Calendar, the Christmas Market and the Pancake Party at Coffee on the Common. Yet for many it may have been a year of personal tragedy and change. As we come to the end of a cycle in the village and churches year it’s refreshing to know that whatever kind of year we have had, we can always begin again each day afresh with God.
For some of us, the last year may or so may have been a year we wish could literally be started again, with Brexit and an uncertain General Election all casting a shadow of uncertainty over what the future might hold. There may also be many personal challenges which we may have had to overcome, whether in our personal relationships, our health or something else. For others, the last year may have been a really positive experience, both personally and nationally.
What would St Benedict have to say about all that is happening in our country and world today, I wonder? St Benedict lived at a time of massive change and upheaval, including the break-up of the Roman Empire and the loss of a common identity. In response Benedict sought to create communities which had listening and balance at their heart with obedience, stability and conversion of life, as their 3 main vows. At the centre of this way of life, was and is a way of life grounded in Christ. In this he provided an alternative to all the change and uncertainty in the world around him. That’s why his rule is still used and practiced throughout the world today, with our nearest Benedictine community located in Turvey in Bedfordshire (and open to visits too).
It is refreshing to know that whatever kind of year we have had, it is always possible to begin again. To start afresh and try to live with the attitude of ‘always we begin again’. Every day will have opportunities to get things right and to be positive, no matter what has come before.
First an update on last month’s column: within a week of writing “although we don’t (yet) applaud sermons and anthems”, I was in an Anglican church where the congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the anthem!
And so to the music for our July Evensong. The responses will be sung in the setting by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). These responses are not as well known as, particularly, those by Byrd and William Smith of Durham, although they are now quite regularly heard on the BBC’s Choral Evensong. Tomkins is interesting because he outlived his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean composers by more than 30 years, long enough for his post as organist at Worcester Cathedral to become redundant when the city surrendered to parliamentary forces in 1646. By this time he had been in post for 50 years and I had always thought of him as happy to serve his time away from the capital, a bit like Weelkes in Chichester (more about him when Jonathan does his Hosanna or Alleluia, I heard a voice). These two composers interest me at the moment because, in looking at the music sung at Christ Church, Oxford from the 1880s, when such records began, I have found neither mentioned until the 1920s, whereas Tallis and Gibbons, to a lesser extent Byrd, and even Richard Farrant, of composers from the same period, feature strongly. One reason could be that neither Tomkins nor Weelkes was included in Cathedral Music, a collection of nearly 250 pieces compiled by William Boyce in the 1760s. But in Tomkins’ case, it was not because he was stuck in Worcester. In fact he was a member of the Chapel Royal as singer and organist and must have spent much time in London. His madrigals were probably better known than his church music, of which his son made a collection after his death.
We sing the canticles to Darke in F. Harold Darke (1888-1976) spent 50 years as Organist at St Michael’s, Cornhill (1916-1966) and is best known for his setting of the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. I associate this piece with King’s College, Cambridge, and Darke spent four years of the Second World War as Acting Director of Music there in the absence of Boris Ord; but now I check my copy I find that it was copyrighted in 1911! So the best I can hope for is that he took it with him to Cambridge! Of the complete service in F from the 1920s, the setting of the Communion is perhaps even better known than the evening canticles. Cathedral choirs these days regularly sing the Latin masses of Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Haydn and Mozart within the modern Eucharist, and it is a measure of the enduring quality of the music of Harold Darke, who cannot be said to have made much of an impression as a composer outside church music, that his setting of the Book of Common Prayer words for the Communion still finds a place in the repertory. The modern words of Evening Prayer have not, by and large, caught the imagination of composers and, in sung services, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” is more likely to be replaced by “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” than by “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. It’s not exactly the ultimate test, but Wikipedia gives only the Latin and BCP texts! Darke’s setting is very varied with textures from solo lines to double choir in eight parts. The organ of course plays an important role and it’s interesting to see how much of it isn’t “in F”: the whole of the Nunc Dimittis, until the Gloria, is in D minor.
The anthem is ‘Sing praise to God who reigns above’ by Percy Whitlock, of whom I have written a couple of times recently. The words are taken from the English Hymnal (a hymn not in HON) and are a translation of a 17th century German chorale, Sei Lob’ und Ehr’. Whitlock set three verses of the EH hymn, but ended each verse with the refrain from the first “To God all praise and glory” and in each case this is the climax of the verse. The piece was written for the Diocesan Choirs’ Festival at Rochester Cathedral in 1928. I mentioned the equivalent festival at St Albans in the 1960s last month. These festivals grew out of the Choral Revival of the 1840s and were held at both diocesan and national level. At one time up to 5000 singers would take part in huge events at the Crystal Palace; in 1987 the Royal School of Church Music was able to gather 850 singers at the Albert Hall to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee. And even today, the diocese of Salisbury maintains its June Festival with a history of over 150 years.
The voluntary is the first movement of JS Bach’s Sonata in C BWV529. This is the fifth of a set of six pieces often known as trio sonatas because they use the texture of the instrumental works by composers such as Corelli, often two violins and continuo. On the organ the two hands play on different manuals partly to get matching but different sounds, but also to keep out of each other’s way – the right hand is sometimes lower than the left. Meanwhile the feet provide a harmonic bass. So there are three independent melodic lines and, although you are playing only three notes at any one time, the interaction of their independence produces a challenge which I find completely impossible! My compliments to the organist!
Do you remember the very first time you ever rode a bike all on your own? Do you remember that feeling of excitement mixed with an equal sense of foreboding as you pedalled that first, short, wobbly distance? The excitement was in doing something you had never done before; the foreboding was in the almost certain knowledge that sooner rather than later your sense of balance would desert you and you would fall off your bike. The next frightening moment was when you learned to signal which meant having to take one hand off the handlebars with the further wobbles and the tumbles that that may have involved. But as your technique improved every time you rode your bike you could think back to the bruised and bloodied knees of those early days and know that it had been worth it.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his rising from the dead, they were overjoyed to see him and yet they couldn’t help noticing that he still carried the wounds he suffered at his crucifixion. They saw the marks of the nails in his hands and spear in his side and most of them would have remembered how they had abandoned him at the time when he needed them most. But he did not blame or scold them, he wished them peace. What was done was done and he wanted them to have peace of mind and concentrate on the future. His wounds would remain an eternal sign of the cost of love and a lesson they’d learn for themselves in time.
From the moment we were born, life has been a constant learning process. Over the years we have all had opportunities to learn new skills. When we attempt something that is unfamiliar or complicated we have to make allowances for the mistakes we shall make in the process. If we are seriously committed to what we have begun, we may have to allow ourselves some extra time and patience until, gradually, we are able to move forwards from ‘beginner’ to ‘proficient’ and maybe even to ‘expert’ status.
The strange thing is that we do not always make allowances for ourselves or for others as we learn the biggest and most important lesson that will ever challenge us: how to live as a fallible human being in a world that is itself far from perfect. We have a lifelong path of discovery to take if we are to be rewarded with a quality of goodness at the heart of us. Everybody stumbles and falls on the way, so it is important that we shouldn’t feel discouraged and give up altogether.
God knows that we are learners in life. He sees the ‘L’ plates which are invisible to us and to others. He still loves us when we fall far short of perfection and asks just one thing of us: that we ‘dust ourselves off and try again’. At Pentecost Jesus again tells us to be at peace, however battered and bruised we may feel. We are still learning to be like him and God makes allowances for that by sending us the Spirit of love and encouragement to help us make a fresh start at all those times when that is just what we need.