Evensong at Southwell Minster – Saturday 23rd July 2011

Posted on September 3, 2011

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It started so well. In khaki and racing green with matching cap and tie, such a well turned out bus driver had never before graced the highways of Southgate. After we embarked, it became apparent that these parts were indeed unknown territory for him. An hour later we reached the M25 (via Edmonton) and it dawned on us that despite his previous career as a navigator in the Air Force, our driver’s sense of direction did not equal his sartorial flair! Our carbon footprint was already burgeoning by the time we reached the A1, when roadworks forced our diversion onto the byways of Bedfordshire and déjà-vu became an unwelcome reality. On our second trip around the same  diversion, Dr Lo came to the rescue with a sheet map supported by Rosie Tweddle on Tom Tom, who steered us to a pit stop in the centre of St Neot’s – after four hours on board a relief to us all, in every sense.

We are told that life can flourish even in the most extreme conditions and our journey did not prove inhospitable to all. In fact, one member of the tenor section found it most agreeable, managing to sleep off the memory of an end of term party that had raged until the small hours – St Neot’s appearing just in time to administer the medicinal and very necessary carbohydrates.

The Black Cat Roundabout did indeed hail a period of rather better luck. David Hinitt’s prediction that Southwell would remain “Nottinghamshire’s best kept secret” proved unfounded when we glimpsed the three towers of the wonderful Minster as our five hour schelp came to a close.

Founded on the site of a Roman Villa (one of the largest and most northernmost discovered in Britain) there has been a church on the site since Saxon times and by the middle of the tenth century the Minster was already being used as a base for priests working across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, later becoming the mother church for the southern part of the Diocese of York. Architecturally this is a building of contrasts – the simple but substantial Norman columns of the nave now lead on to the Early English East End, with it’s ribbed and vaulted finery – although when constructed (in exchange for indulgences in the mid thirteenth century) this was strictly the domain of the Archbishop and his clergy. We robed up for rehearsal in the Great Hall, part of the Bishops Palace.

As with our visit to Southwark earlier in the year, Director of Music Harvey Brink had selected the majority of music from a single source, on this occasion Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; doyen of Anglican church music of the last century and famed teacher of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Howells. The canticles were Stanford’s Evening Service in A, written for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1880; a full and lushious setting from the outset building to “for he that is MIGHTY”, one can hear that the piece was originally conceived with an orchestral accompaniment. However, Stanford shows later that beautiful doesn’t have to mean big, with the quartet “and hath exalted the humble and meek.” The staggered entries and coupled unison voices hint at the fantastic split choir arrangement of the concluding Gloria – by far my favourite part of the whole work.

The anthem “For Lo, I Raise Up” is an impassioned and, with it’s solo passages and organ embellishments (masterfully executed by David Hinitt) an almost operatic piece; a setting of part of the Book of Habbakuk. The composition is understood to be Stanford’s response to the First World War, although the music was not published until the outbreak of the Second in 1939, some fifteen years after the composer had died. This distance opens up room for some individuality on the part of each choir master. Harvey had the choir ‘knashing’ the words of the expressive scripture.

Little is known about the Habbakuk, except that he is unique in his public questioning of God’s judgement, for apparently allowing wickedness to go unpunished. Scholars believe the prophet witnessed the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire by the Chaldeans and the sacking of Nineveh in the Seventh Century BC. After a stirring introduction, the lower voices announce the arrival of the Chaldeans, whom God has seemingly raised up against his own people. The first half of the anthem describes the terror and ferociousness of the invaders; “They are terrible and dreadful” exclaims Habbakuk, through the soprano line, with the lower voices biting “Their horses also are swifter than leopards and are more fierce than the evening wolves”. The lawlessness intensifies and with it the prophet’s desperation and the tumultuousness of the score until the second part of the anthem, when an organ interlude leads us to Habbakuk at prayer before he makes his final plea to God for guidance through a soprano solo. God’s response, prefaced by solo tenor “and the Lord answered me, and said” comes from the full choir, who explain that His purpose will ultimately be revealed; announced by a glorious organ passage, before the choir return for the calm, concluding line of this athletic anthem. The Final Responses by Bernard Rose brought our Evensong Southwell Minster to a close.

Fearing a repeat performance (of the journey, not the service) a mini-mutiny was staged before our return, leading to a not-so-subtle relaxation of the no food or drink onboard rule, (the least subtle ‘clinks’ coming from a certain soprano soloist’s flimsy carrier as she set up stall on the back seat). The Fish & Chip Shop and the chilled section of the Southwell Co-Op both rose up to the challenge and receive a well deserved five stars from us all for providing the ingredients that made the trip home a more easily forgettable affair.

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