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Column: Sacred Music in a Secular Age

  • F. Nash's "Choir of the Cathedral," originally published in 1813. (Courtesy Welcome Library, London)



For the Valley News
Saturday, October 06, 2018

If there’s a better antidote to the madness emanating from Washington than a choral festival in the medieval chapels of Oxford, England, I can’t imagine what it might be. For three days last week, pilgrims from around the English-speaking world descended for lectures, casual meanderings through streets and alleys and a series of concerts beneath the vaulted Gothic ceilings of Magdalen, Queen’s, Merton, New and Christ Church colleges.

Stephen Darlington, tutor in music at Christ Church, provided an overview of choral music in Oxford over the centuries, with special attention to the English Reformation of the 16th century, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. Reformers in England, led by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, demanded that church music be written and performed in English rather than Latin for the edification of common people. Cranmer also sought to rein in polyphony, stipulating “for every syllable a note.”

Fortunately, the English composers of the age — John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, William Byrd and others — generally disregarded Cranmer’s dictum. Sacred music in England survived the Reformation, as the concerts themselves illustrated.

I will almost certainly run out of adjectives to describe the music itself, 17 discrete concerts performed by several college choirs and such notable groups as Contrapunctus, the Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedral, Stile Antico and the Tallis Scholars. Listening to the soaring sopranos, the rumbling basses and the filigreed voices in between, especially in stained-glass settings, was a transformative experience. And here I’ll dip into my cache of adjectives: ethereal, moving, angelic, magnificent, otherworldly, transcendent.

The festival, dubbed “The Divine Office: Choral Music in Oxford,” emerged from a conversation several years ago between Martin Randall, an art historian who runs a high-end travel company out of London, and Peter Phillips, director of the Tallis Scholars. There’s some dispute over who came up with the idea, but the festival began in 2012 and has repeated triennially since. (Part of the motivation, I suspect, was to burnish the reputation of Oxford as a venue for choral music; the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, especially its legendary Nine Lessons and Carols sung at Christmas Eve every year, is more famous.)

The final full day of the festival was meant to replicate the monastic regimen of eight daily prayers, from Matins at 1 a.m. to Compline at 9:15 p.m. The Terce (at 9:15 a.m.) featured music written for Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the 16th century composer sometimes credited, most likely apocryphally, with rescuing polyphonic music from the depredations of radical Protestant reformers. The music, performed in New College Chapel, once again was sublime, cycling through the components of the liturgy: Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy), the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and Benedictus (Blessed is he) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

But nothing in between — no priest, no Eucharist, no passing of the peace among parishioners — and here is where the festival lost some of its power. Most of the people in attendance, both singers and audience, were there solely for the music. But the music was wrenched out of its liturgical context, stripped of all religious or spiritual meaning. One of the choirmasters acknowledged the disjunction between the performers themselves and what they were singing.

The effect was not unlike Joni Mitchell’s tree museum, or a plane taxiing down the runway but never lifting into the air. Here was sacred music for a secular age, carefully curated from centuries past and meticulously performed. A music museum for the discerning aesthete.

We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. The West is still captive to Enlightenment-style rationalism, where faith and belief defy the strictures of positivism. Weekly attendance in the Church of England hasn’t topped a million since 2013, out of a population in excess of 65 million. The prevailing assumption these days is that no clear-minded person can also be a person of faith, that the canons of Enlightenment rationalism serve as the final arbiter of truth and that the realm of the transcendent is the habitation of fools. Darlington’s biggest laugh line was “Well done the clergy” after describing some admittedly risible restrictions on organ music at Lincoln Cathedral in the 16th century. Then he added that he needed to be careful because “there may be some clergy here.”

Priests reduced to caricature. Faith consigned to the dustbin of history. Music as artifact, nothing more.

Not everyone, it should be said, was insensible to the deeper dimensions of the music. A few auditors clearly were transported, as evident by watery eyes and beatific smiles. But those souls were a minority, regarded by others as aberrations. “Some people seem to be taking this very seriously,” a bewildered woman said before one of the concerts. “Why would that be?”

One of the final performances included a reading from Philip Larkin, musing on a visit to an empty, musty church. He finds himself

Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

When churches will fall completely out of use

What shall we turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show,

Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Then he continues:

But superstition, like belief, must die,

And what remains when disbelief has gone?

What indeed?

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College.