Monday, November 02, 2009

Pipe to the spirit ...

Thought I'd join the hymn fray before it's all over bar the singing ...

It's harder these days to find hymns that I can bear to sing, actually. The big, ponderous hymns that we used to bash out regardless leave me cold, even if they have wonderful tunes, as some of them do. Maybe too much exposure to them is part of the problem - they're boring after the nth repetition. So even Come Down O Love Divine (to Down Ampney) feels like a drag these days, and in a way that makes me sad. Part of the problem could be that it's not the same sung by half a dozen people with the rest a gentle murmuring in the rear - a proper choir at least gave me the pleasure of balanced harmony and colour as we sang.

I used to be thrilled by Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy). This hymn was completely new to me when I first encountered the Episcopal church, in the cathedral on Cumbrae, and is forever associated for me with firsts - incense, communion, the sense of the holy. I can still feel the hairs rise when we get to the alleluias, and the imagery is so poetic that there is little sense of the banal or the absurd. The same could be said for Lo he comes at Advent - I'd never heard it until I had moved to Dunoon, and it bowled me over.

Otherwise, I still find plainsong powerful. Ancient words tend to be timeless, somehow - the imagery so obviously not to be taken literally that I can just enjoy the poetry of it. I love Be still my soul and Lead kindly light, just as I love There is a Redeemer. I find the Taizé stuff we do a true vehicle for meditation and a way out of the ordinary, and I get the hair-on-end moments when we do Ubi Caritas with the solo verses as found in HON - especially if it's Bishop Martin or Mr B singing them.

But I'm at once fussy and fortunate. I rarely have to listen to inadequate organ playing, and I expect a high standard of harmonisation of last verses. If there isn't a decent musician around, I'd rather have said services than fight against flaccid rhythms or duff harmonies, and I've had enough Victorian bombast to last me an eternity. In the end heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter ... no?


  1. Oh, Irby must be the Willcox arrangement, etc. Not much use when one's head *knows* how it goes (in full-on Dolby stereo) but everyone else is singing by committee to compensate for the accompanist's, er, foibles. Unfortunately those churches that ironically deny they have a liturgy tend not to have a concept of "said" service to make up for it.

    There was a seductive but destructive attitude to Church music 10-20yrs ago, at least in some circles in which I moved at the time, that said "this is church, do not apply yourself to the production of music as you would a concert performance"; from this settling-for-less came the rise of people who'd hit the "magic chord" button and stand with one finger on the synthesizer, or who'd stand around looking spaced-out whilst noodling on an over-mic'd steel-strung guitar in key of Dmin for 10mins at a time, etc. We were not fooled; the lack of care taken (or the good kind of pride in one's work) is more Cain than Abel.

    Small wonder that I'm a cathedral pew-mouse; the Numinous's music is eye-shuttingly rapturous (even) when it's silence.

  2. Let all mortal flesh... is it not?

    My tastes are visceral rather than spiritual, and much influenced by childhood exposure to the Band of Hope on wintry winter Fridays. (It was warm inside.)

    Hence my addiction to tub-thumpers: Yield not to temptation (even though the thought of a ten-year-old subduing dark passions is not as far-fetched now as it was then!); I will make you fishers of men; Deep, deep as the ocean; und so weiter.

    This explains why I skip like a ram at the opening strains of Sagina and St George's (Edinburgh), while at the same time I am capable of going all gooey with By cool Siloam's shady rill to the strains of Belmont. Indeed, the latter will be played at my funeral (along with Behold the mountain of the Lord to the tune Glasgow), however inappropriately, or else I shall return to haunt the organisers!

  3. Of course it's flesh - thank you! I was in the middle of writing an All Saints' sermon at the time. My mind is obviously going ...

  4. Oh - Mr B wrote a wonderful descant to "Behold the mountain...": we've sung it on Cumbrae!

  5. Can I book it for the obsequies, please?

  6. Tim, I never got round to saying: what on earth is Irby? Sounds like something you put in your hair (well, not you personally)- and do you mean Willcocks?

    I get frustrated in cathedrals where I am not in the choir. Megalomania to the end...

  7. Irby - Once in royal David's city, methinks; but not - please! - taken at the dirge-like pace demanded by the acoustic of Collegium Regale Cantabrigiense.