Prayerbook: An Oratorio about Tradition and Change
First things first. If you love music, if you love Cranmer’s Prayer Book, if you love the Church of England, I urge you to make a pilgrimage to Romsey Abbey in Hampshire on the evening of 14 September, where you are in for a treat:
my Oratorio-with-a-Difference, Prayerbook. It features a Calypso sung by the Choristers of New College Oxford, and a comedy Fugue sung by the top Barber-Shop Quartet Over-the-Bridge, to words from the back of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer about who you’re not allowed to marry, beginning ‘A man may not marry his grandfather’s wife’. The Waynflete Singers, one of the best choirs in the country, will be accompanied by glittering brass and percussion, by the mighty Romsey organ, and by the prize-winning Navarra String Quartet. The international operatic baritone Peter Savidge is the soloist.
The piece has its serious moments too, of course – it begins with a thought-provoking phrase from 1549: ‘There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted’. At which point the chorus Hisses – the first time this effect has been used.
David Owen Norris
Second things second – is it possible you do not already know of David Owen Norris? Born in 1953, he studied music at Keble College, Oxford where he was organ scholar; he is now an Honorary Fellow of the college After leaving Oxford, he studied composition, and worked at the Royal Opera House as a repetiteur. As a pianist, he has accompanied soloists such as Dame Janet Baker, Larry Adler and John Tomlinson , and his solo career has included appearances at the Proms and performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He has also presented several radio series (his Playlist Series for BBC Radio 4 has recently finished its second series). He has also presented for television, and appeared in a number of television documentaries. He is a professor at the Royal College of Music and also teaches at the University of Southampton, where he is Head of Keyboard.He has also been Gresham Professor of Music and a professor at the Royal Academy of Music (having earlier been a student there). You can read about his career in more detail on his website here.
St Swithun, David Owen Norris and Me
I first had the privilege of meeting David Owen Norris in 2010 when the Lay Worship Leaders of Andover Deanery united to offer a service of our joint devising on St Swithun’s Day, 15th July. David, who lives in the area of the Deanery, kindly agreed to be our Music Director. With exquisite skill, he turned the offerings of a local hymn writer into something that scanned and had real meaning and jollied us all -possessed of only accidental musical talent, if at all, into a team (in other words, he directed much more than the music).
Each lay worship leader took a different aspect of St Swithun’s life – I was responsible for the saint’s remains:
St Swithun was buried, at his own request, in a simple grave outside the west door of the Saxon church in Winchester so that ‘passers-by might tread on his grave, and where the sweet rain of heaven might fall on it’. In so doing, he unconsciously started a trend. The Mogul Emperor, Shah Jahan, famously built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his favourite wife, but his second favourite scored a moral victory in the long run when, in writing her own epitaph, she said:
‘Let nought but the green grass cover the grave of Jahanara, For grass is the fittest covering for the tomb of the lowly’.
And in the 19th century Christina Rossetti wrote:
‘Be the green grass above me with showers and dewdrops wet; And if thou wilt, remember; and if thou wilt, forget.’
It is interesting that the word humility derives, as St Thomas Aquinas points out, from humus, the earth which is beneath us. According to legend, the monks first tried to move the body of St Swithun inside the old Minster some nine years after his death but, when the heavens opened for forty days in succession, the body was returned to the original resting place outside…
Attempt to update a Wesleyan hymn
When I rashly and ill-advisedly attempted to produce an updated version of Wesley’s hymn ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ (Love divine, all loves embracing), I equally rashly thought to ask David for his views. He was kind, he was gentle, but he was adamant. Replying by email, I think to spare my blushes, he gave a reasoned critique which included the unassailable remark:
I think great hymns are as much works of art as Shakespeare’s Sonnets – and we wouldn’t ‘improve’ them, or tweak them to fit our own preferences.
No. Quite. Lesson learned.
Back to the ‘Prayerbook’ Oratorio
I hope very much you will be able to join us in Romsey Abbey. But if an immoveable physical object such as the Atlantic Ocean makes your presence unlikely, then I urge you to read more about the work on David’s website.