St Paul’s Evensong at OccupyLSX

I didn’t think, when I got up this morning, that I would somehow wind up leading a BCP Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The cathedral has had Occupy LSX, a protest camp, on their doorstep for the past week. Last weekend the Canon Chancellor, Revd Dr Giles Fraser, told the police to leave the protesters alone. As the week has worn on and the tents have stayed up, the cathedral has been operating on a reduced schedule, and on Friday the Dean issued a statement saying it would have to close until further notice.

I have no strong criticism of the cathedral closing to sightseers; there is a point at which keeping things ticking over stops making economic sense, and though I am uncomfortable with entry fees for cathedrals I cannot condemn them without calling into question the legitimacy of thousands of smaller, parish-based fundraising efforts. Fair game.

But a cathedral is more than architecture and establishment. Cathedrals exist to serve the local community, as well as to support parish churches in their work. Their primary task is of public worship, and it is difficult to see how Occupy LSX are a significant threat to that. The supposed health and safety reasons for closure given by the cathedral haven’t, to my knowledge, been specified in a way that would allow the protesters to improve matters, and so things have come to a sort of impasse.

Practising the organ this morning I half-joked on Twitter about being tempted to turn up at St Paul’s and hold Evensong myself, if they weren’t letting people in for services. Then I went back to practising, it being one of those mornings where I felt like I had someone else’s fingers and feet, and the choir turned up and we rehearsed, and there was a service and afterwards tea and toast. I checked my phone before heading home and there seemed to be some positive response to the idea of an outdoor Evensong, and I began to think more seriously about it.

I’m accustomed to Evensong services of varying sizes. I knew that without any real idea of who was going to turn up, I wouldn’t want to plan anything too complicated.. but there definitely wasn’t time to select metrical psalms, so we’d have to do simple Anglican Chant (and hope for enough people who can make sense of it for it to work) or even just said psalms and canticles. I made a few more tentative tweets, putting out feelers to see who else might be interested. I tried to contact both St Paul’s, and Occupy LSX, through Twitter, and got no response — fair enough, both are busy organisations. But people who had been involved in the protest, and various clergy and churchy types online, seemed encouraging, so I decided to go for it.

At 12.12 I tweeted “Right. Evensong at @OccupyLSX outside St Pual’s, 3.45 for 4pm. Please bring Parish Psalter & BCP if you have them.” From there it was a matter of choosing hymns with words in the public domain and printing them, providing links to those and to the BCP liturgy for the day through the C of E website, making sure I had the readings and the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity to hand, and the sort of low-grade terror at what I was doing that you might expect, complete with wildly beating heart and trembling hands. A lot of people were generally supportive but simply unable to get there due to geography or prior commitments. But people said they would come, and I turned up and they found me. Our numbers were small but mighty, and included an atheist and a Roman Catholic, as a typical Evensong at St Paul’s well might! Apparently there had been some sort of praying and singing not too long before my arrival, but the clergyman involved was busy being interviewed by someone with a camera and I had come over all shy, so we decided just to get on with it. We chose an almost-quiet spot outside M&S and did just that.

And it was good. Christ is made the sure foundation was our introit, chosen because I love it and it is a good length, and one or two people did join us as we sang. There was a bit of informal awkwardness going from one bit of the service to the next — I nearly forgot the psalm, think of it! — but we chanted psalms and canticles in something resembling unison, and the ferial responses were fairly straightforward. The readings were Ecclesiastes Chapters 11 and 12, and St Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2, verses 1-7. One annoying photographer insisted on trying to ask us questions during the service, which I found a bit difficult — I tried to explain we weren’t finished, I think someone else went and talked to him and then came and joined us again. Instead of sermon (the epistle said it all with “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.”) or anthem we had Guide me, O thou great Jehovah and after the “Prayer for the Clergy and People” (rather apt I thought) and “A Prayer of St Chrysostom” and the Grace we sang O God, our help in ages past and went our respective ways — some of us to the pub, to slake the thirst after righteousness (I’ll get my coat), others off home or to other parts of the protest.

So, that was a pretty strange day. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Your Commission, Should You Choose to Request It

An experiment:

I would like to write more music, particularly choral music. I would prefer to do this on commission, for a whole bunch of reasons. But my music is not well-known, and so I don’t attract attention from people who have serious money to pay for commissions, on the whole. So far, every note I have ever written has been for free.

What if the money for commissions isn’t quite so serious?

For £30, I will set up to 50 words of English for SATB, with or without a simple organ or piano accompaniment. I’m willing to do more complex compositions, or simpler ones, or other languages, but please do contact me about it — Latin is easy, Russian much harder! You can see (and in some cases hear) examples of my other compositions by using the look what I made category on this blog. That isn’t a full list (I’m working on it; processing works that pre-date this blog is another thing that is easily pushed aside!), but it’s something.

Your chosen text must be in the public domain, or you must have permission from the appropriate sources for me to set it. The copyright of the finished work will remain with me but I will release it under a CC BY-SA license, meaning that others can use it freely in derivative works, even for commercial purposes, as long as they acknowledge my work and share it similarly. So if you commission a choral work from me, you won’t just be contributing to my livelihood, you’ll be contributing to a body of publicly available art.

Any takers?

A creative response to copyrighted lyrics…

Eric Whitacre wrote this music to fit the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Rather stupidly, Robert Frost’s estate told him that he couldn’t use it until it becomes public domain in 2038.

So he asked Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem to fit, using the same meter and some of the same words… this is the result:

The whole virtual choir thing is pretty darn awesome, too.

(Hat tip to @elmyra who brought the post on BoingBoing to my attention.)

In the great congregation I will praise…

Though my diocesan cathedral in Chelmsford is a bit of a trek for me, I’m privileged in London to be within easy travel distance of both St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.
Yesterday, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to attend a service that I couldn’t mess up by playing the organ in the wrong place, I attended the Chrism Mass (actually called “The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils” on the order of service) at Southwark Cathedral. In the Church of England, this is the service at which Chrism oils are blessed and at which clergy renew their ordination vows. It was a good service, and I’m glad that I went. The Mass setting by Langlais was perhaps a tad inaccessible, but if you can’t sing Latin and some crunchy harmonies when you’ve got several hundred clergy who all know what the words mean, when can you sing them? Certainly there were bowed heads when the Sanctus came around, so I’m sure the vast majority knew what was going on.

Accessibility was also my concern with the Psalm. The choir sang their verses of Psalm 23 beautifully enough that, at first, I wondered whether my previous disdain for responsorial psalmody might be unjustified. I don’t know whose setting it was; it isn’t the one in the only book of responsorial psalmody I own, and by the time I’ve looked it up anywhere else I’ll probably have forgotten it. It was simple, the text was clear, and when the choir broke into four-part harmony for the last four lines it was simply sublime; I think it was some of the best choral singing I heard during the service.

Why, then, interrupt this with a congregational response? The response itself was interesting enough, but I struggled to remember it correctly after hearing it twice and singing it once. Perhaps I’m just getting too dependent on having dots in front of me! But switching from unmetered chant to a metrical response without some sort of indication of tempo is hard in a small congregation and even harder in a large one. I felt like an unwieldy, oversized ox in a specialist china shop for dolls. I value congregational participation in the psalms, but given the nature of most of the congregation — ordained clergy and the odd “church geek” layperson such as myself — I think that just the chant without any congregational singing might well have been participatory enough. It would have been better had the response had some sort of metrical introduction, but even that might not be heard clearly in an echo-y cathedral with an organ. I was too far away to see the musical director well enough to follow any directions given to the choir.

(The psalm was also labeled as Psalm 133 — a wonderful psalm to use at a Chrism Mass, given the focus on unity and the imagery of oil — but the psalm they sang was definitely Psalm 23. I can only attribute this to a clerical error!)

By contrast, I absolutely loved the hymnody; there is something about singing hymns with several hundred other people singing their hearts out that is just too good for words. I was disappointed we didn’t make it to the end of “Lift high the cross” (which I’ve sung so seldom I didn’t actually remember the tune) and none of the hymns were real favourites of mine, but there was none of the lumbering uncertainty I felt during the psalm. Ordinarily I prefer good metrical hymnody in full parish churches to cathedrals, for some of the same acoustic, aesthetic reasons I didn’t like the psalm response: in a big echo-y space, chances are you’ve got to go slowly enough to spoil the line, and if the place isn’t absolutely rammed (and even sometimes when it is) people tend to sing quietly under their breath so that the general effect is that of an indecisive jellyfish; I usually end up listening carefully for the organ and choir and trying to stick with them while people around me mumble into their hymn books, and I really struggle if there’s a tune I don’t know. But in this instance everyone was singing, the tempo was on the whole right for the space without being too slow to get through a line in one breath, and it was all quite wonderful. I really enjoyed being able to sing without feeling like I had to take the lead for twelve people sitting near me who had no idea what the tune was, and being able to let my voice follow others when I didn’t know the notes. Maybe this is what hymns were like, or could be like, when there was more general enthusiasm about singing. Maybe this is what hymns can still be like if people can be convinced to sing! It was one of the best experiences of congregational singing I’ve had for a long time.

Ruht wohl

Last night I went to hear Bach’s St John Passion at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The cathedral is not the best acoustic environment for it, to be honest: there’s a very long echo and the sound just gets incredibly muddy. Bach is better, I think, with some clarity.

The Passion was sung in English. As a rule I tend to prefer singing in the original language and as an audience member I think I feel the same, though I can see the point of using English given the context. I’m not sure about the translation, either, though. The first part of the clip embedded above was sung as follows:

“Sleep well, and rest in God’s safekeeping,
who makes an end of all our weeping.
Sleep well, and on his breast sleep well.

The grave, that was prepared for thee,
from all our sorrows sets us free,
and points the way to Heaven,
and shuts the gates of Hell.”

The German is:
“Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.”

and another translation into English is this:
“Rest well, ye holy bones and members,
Which I henceforth shall never weep for,
Rest well and bring me, too, to rest!
The tomb which for you is assigned,
And henceforth no distress will hold,
Doth open heav’n to me and shut the gates of hell. “

I definitely like “rest” as being closer to “ruht” than “sleep” is, and “rest in God’s safekeeping” seems to basically be made up. But the second translation is pretty awkward as English verse goes. I’ve not studied German so I can’t nitpick too much, and I’m a poor translator in any case, but I would like something faithful both to the meaning of the words and the metrical form.

Despite these imperfections I was thoroughly glad I went. This movement echoed in my head as I cycled home, and will probably stay with me the rest of the week.

In Commendation of Music

Somehow, I neglected to blog about this at the time… last year I wanted to make a birthday present for Stella, who keeps everything ticking over smoothly at Quire.

So of course I wrote a piece of music. The text is by one William Strode, and I chose it (after the usual laboured searching) because it was a fairly simple metrical poem which I could set in the style of an 18th-century glee. PDF file here and the usual too-slow MIDI. As always it’s released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.

WHEN whispering strains do softly steal
With creeping passion through the heart
And when at every touch we feel
Our pulses beat and bear a part;
When threads can make
A heartstring shake
Philosophy
Can scarce deny
The soul consists of harmony.

When unto heavenly joy we feign
Whate’er the soul affecteth most,
Which only thus we can explain
By music of the wingàed host,
Whose lays we think
Make stars to wink,
Philosophy
Can scarce deny
Our souls consist of harmony.

O lull me, lull me, charming air,
My senses rock with wonder sweet;
Like snow on wool thy fallings are,
Soft, like a spirit’s, are thy feet:
Grief who need fear
That hath an ear?
Down let him lie
And slumbring die,
And change his soul for harmony.

Psalm 31 vv 9-16 to Aylesbury

This is the last of the metrical Psalms for this Lent. On Maundy Thursday we’ll be singing Psalm 22, right enough, but it will be a chanted version using the Common Worship text. The plan is to keep that very simple: two notes only, a minor third apart.

I wanted to use the opportunity to teach the choir (and expose the congregation) to another good tune that’s in the New English Hymnal but which we don’t seem to sing very much. It is perhaps a bit dreary for the repeated insistence of the response, “That thou, my God, art good and just, my soul with comfort knows,” but the repeated request to see God’s mercy fits it very well. Again, I wanted something relatively easy — there’s an awful lot going on already on Psalm Sunday, what with processions to the forest, palm crosses and so on.

I chose Brady and Tate’s “New Version” for this psalm portion not because I especially liked the text, but because the Scottish Psalter and Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version” both seemed… well, awkward.

I’m sure that this verse from the Scottish Psalter:

When they me saw they from me fled.
Ev’n so I am forgot,
As men are out of mind when dead:
I’m like a broken pot.

would have some of my younger choristers in fits of giggles. The Old Version is only slightly better:

As men once dead are out of mind,
so am I now forgot;

As little use of me they find
as of a broken pot.

But still, on the whole, I thought it would be better to stick with the “shattered vessel” language, even if the rhyming is a bit strained:

Forsook by all am I,
as dead and out of mind;
And like a shattered vessel lie,
whose parts can ne’er be joined.

In any case, here is the response:

For a more complete picture there is a PDF file here.

Psalm 130 to Cheshire

This past Sunday — Passion Sunday — was not an All-Age Service, or anything else requiring exceptional liturgy, and so it was back to metrical psalms with a congregational response.

I was pleased with this setting of Psalm 130. The tune I chose is one that we’ll be using on Palm Sunday and which is not terribly well known in the congregation, so sneaking it in as the psalm is one way of getting people used to it. I’m also very fond of the harmony. That said, the dotted rhythms mean it does need to be taken quite slowly in order that the words don’t get swallowed up.

I did stumble at first over the beginning of the last stanza:

“And plenteous redemption
is ever found with him.”

At first glance this doesn’t seem to have the right number of syllables. There should be eight in the first line and six in the second, right? But I know from singing other music that pronunciation has changed; the word “redemption”, which most people now pronounce with three syllables, would have had four. The choir were happier to sing it with four syllables than change the rhythm of the music to make it fit, so that’s what we did.

Here’s the response, taken as usual from the last line of the melody:


And if you want the whole thing, you can download a .pdf file. I played the verse first, then the choir sang the response once through, then the congregation sang it. This seems to work well.

Psalm 121: Anglican Chant with a congregational response

Continuing with the inclusion of psalms to our liturgy during Lent, on 20th March at St Andrew’s we sang Psalm 121. This is a favourite of mine and of many others, and I wanted to use Anglican Chant this time. There are various chants that can be used; the one by H. Walford Davies, with solos in the first and third quarters, is certainly well-known. But it wasn’t really appropriate for our very small choir, which doesn’t have enough voices to cover four parts. Instead I used a chant by Phocion Henley, who I know better as the composer of many West Gallery tunes.

We still needed a congregational response. I made this one by using the last half of the chant, keeping the rhythm simple:


It worked a treat.

This past Sunday we had a said psalm, which I must say I didn’t find nearly as rewarding. Next week is Mothering Sunday and we are having an All Age Chaos Service. Happily the psalm appointed for that day is Psalm 34, which has actually made it into our hymnal thinly disguised as a hymn: “Through all the changing scenes of life” is from Tate and Brady’s “New Version” of the psalms, published in 1696. We will sing it to the Common Meter tune “Wiltshire”, attributed to George Smart (1776-1867) and originally set to Psalm 48. This is relatively familiar to the congregation and choir alike so everyone will sing, rather than my fussing about with responses.

That leaves me with Psalm 130 (Passion Sunday), Psalm 31 vv 9-16 (Palm Sunday), and Psalm 22 (Maundy Thursday, during the stripping of the altar) to sort out; we won’t have sung psalmody on Good Friday or during our Easter Vigil. I’m planning on metrical psalms with congregational responses for the first two, but that won’t work for Maundy Thursday; for that, I think it will be a unison chanted psalm with alternate lines by a soloist and the rest of the choir.

I’ve enjoyed working with the psalms so far and trying different ways of fitting in the congregational responses, and I will miss them.

With cheerfulness rejoice

Psalm 51 on Wednesday night went well, I thought: the congregation sang their response and the choir led well. There were even some positive comments after the service!

For this morning’s service I wanted to keep things simple — fitting in the extra music for Ash Wednesday had already squished our rehearsal time a bit. So I decided we’d do the same thing, using a metrical version of Psalm 32 and an appropriate congregational response.
I had originally thought to go with the Isaac Watts paraphrase of the psalm but in the end settled on Sternhold and Hopkins; I don’t entirely remember why. That runs to eleven stanzas in Common Metre (CM) and a response after every verse would have added 50% to the length, so I looked at the version in the Common Worship: Daily Prayer Psalter to see when to add the responses. I settled on Caithness as a tune because I know the choir know reasonably well, but not so well that singing different words than they’re used to will be disconcerting.
Here’s the response we used:
As with Psalm 51 on Wednesday, the notes in the response are the same as the last line that the choir sings, which makes it easier for the congregation to pick things up. Again, I thought it went well. It’s very hard to hear from the organ but I’m told the congregation did sing the response. I was glad to have chosen something simple, as in the end the usual weeknight rehearsal was cancelled due to illness and we only had the pre-service rehearsal this morning to work on this psalm. It was certainly very different from the setting of Psalm 32 that London Gallery Quire sang this evening at Manor Road United Reformed Church, but still appropriately cheerful, I think. More on the Manor Road service in another post!
Next week is Psalm 121, one of my favourites. The plan is to use the non-metrical Common Worship text this time, set to a lovely little chant by Phocion Henley, with, (guess what?) a congregational response based on the last line. We started learning it this morning, and the tune seems fairly solid but fitting the words to it will be more difficult. I’ll be sure to update with further details!