Evensong at Rochester Cathedral – Saturday 30th June 2012

Posted on June 30, 2012


Our trip to Rochester was a happier – and speedier – affair than our journey to Southwell Minster last summer!

As this wonderful cartoon by John Clark shows, our coach trip to Rochester in June was a speedier and far jollier affair than the tortuous journey to Southwell Minster a year ago – although it was sad not to be able to travel to St Pauls to support Hazel Miall (our visit had been arranged long before the date of her ordination was announced). As we crossed the bridge over the Medway, the early morning clouds dispersed and, leaving the bus, we made our way up the pretty High Street under a beautiful summer sky.We found the town decked in bunting (yes it is now a town – in one of the more bizarre local government cock-ups, the Council lost Rochester’s city status in 2002 – attempts to reinstate it have since proved unsuccessful.)

We found the song school in the oldest, Norman, part of the cathedral building.

Approaching along the medieval streets, the cathedral eluded us, but we were directed to the entrance through the Deanery Gate by a well-dressed man on a podium, who we later discovered was the Lord Lieutenant of Kent, about to preside over the Armed Forces Day Parade (so the bunting wasn’t left over from the Jubilee!) Inside, we found our way to the song school; up a staircase at the end of a winding passage of roughly hewn stone – the oldest, Norman part of the cathedral – and what a space; double height, with a grand piano daringly positioned on the upper level on a new floor made of glass bricks.

After depositing our cassocks we went out to cheer on the parade, which was led by serving then retired members of the Army, Navy and Air Force, followed by the Cadets Corps. The parade culminated in a Drumhead Service in the grounds of Rochester Castle; decked out in the biggest Union Flag I have ever seen! The space inside the curtain wall was filled with crisp and precisely aligned canvas tents containing food, drink and displays of military equipment.

The Armed Forces Day Parade culminated in a Drumhead Service in the grounds of Rochester Castle

In 1127 the site was given by Henry I to the Archbishop of Canterbury who built the present day keep, which is reputed to be the best preserved in England and France; and in the midday sun it was hard to imagine as a site of bloodshed and warfare. Closer inspection reveals walls scarred by the battles that marked the changing loyalties of the castle, which flipped between church and state. The unusual round turret was built to replace the original which collapsed after King John’s forces mined beneath the motte and set fire to the supporting pit props, after soaking them in pig fat. In his address, the Reverend Phil Bosher of the Royal Army Chaplains Department spoke of more recent conflict; Iraq, Afghanistan and of funding cuts and the military covenant – a focus on the present which, together with hearing the Last Post played under a clear blue sky, made for a completely different remembrance experience.

The emotional and spiritual power of a piece of music played at a particular time and in a particular setting fascinated Herbert Howells, who composed the canticles we sang at Evensong. Howells said;

“I have never been able to compose a note of music without either a place or a building in my mind.”

Rehearsing Howells Gloucester Service

The sixth of over twenty settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, the Gloucester Service was completed in January 1946 on the day Howells was visiting his home town of Lydney in Gloucestershire to spend time with his mother, who died three weeks later. Programme notes explain the broad sweeping phrases as a response to the acoustic challenges of the building where the composer began his musical career, describing the work using architectural terms like ‘arched’ ‘vaulted’ and ‘terraced’; but this language of permanence fails to convey the magical, ephemeral quality of the sound.Howells is feted as a word-painter, but the Gloucester Service is not just a portrait of the cathedral in sound. While he sought to capitalise on the spatial qualities of the place, this was a means to an end – his purpose being to enhance our experience of the ancient and sacred text of the canticle. Ensuring his compositions were ‘fit’ for worship in this way obsessed Howells. Later in his career, he spoke of the challenges faced by contemporary composers of sacred music;

“I fear the gross threat of a ‘pepping up’, the cheap surrender to popularity, the insidious and melodramatic ‘putting down the mighty from their seat’ tonal elephantitis encouraged by the misuse of outsize organs, the careless denial of idiomatic fitness. These are inherent dangers. They must be countered by men of genius who from time to time shall offer the Church works of supreme fitness”

We were delighted that our performance of the Gloucester Service was described by the Acting Dean of Rochester Cathedral, Canon Dr Philip Hesketh, as the best he had ever heard

When I first heard Howells Gloucester Service I felt transported far beyond the leafy Cotswolds to somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps to the time when Mary first sang this song of praise. The rising and falling intonation of the voices across a single word (‘ma-a-a-gni-fy’ at the beginning and the wonderful ‘glo-o-o-o-o-o-ry’ at the start of the Gloria) has the chant-like quality of a call to prayer; the intonation of Jewish Cantillation. The expansive setting of the text and the topography of the sound created by the undulating dynamics (“ He hath put down the mighty from their seat.”), as well as the pulse of the organ, which separates the three parts of the Magnificat, seems to paint a picture of a slow but steady journey across a desert landscape (perhaps Mary’s journey before giving birth – or symbolic of our own path through life?)

The wall painting in the Quire represents the union of England and France

The setting of the text and the interplay between the organ and voices which intertwine and echo one another, create a rich texture; like the memory of a collective experience (“and the rich he hath sent empty away”). The canticle is scored in F# major, which the German writer Christian Schubart described in his book on the aesthetics of music as “triumph over difficulty, [the] free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; [the]echo of a soul which has fiercly struggled and finally conquered”; a fitting description both in view of Howells’ personal situation at the time he composed the work and the imagery of the text.

On hearing the Gloucester Service for the first time, Eric Milner-White, the former Dean of Kings College Cambridge for whom Howells had composed his famous Collegium Regale setting, wrote;

It is true to say that no piece of music has ever moved me in the same way or so much…I personally feel that you have opened a new chapter in church music. [It is] of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it.

What an honour it was then for us when, after Evensong, our performance of the Gloucester Service was described by the Acting Dean of Rochester Cathedral, Canon Dr Philip Hesketh, as the best he had ever heard.

Rehearsing in the Song School

We began our rehearsal in the Song School with the introit; one of Stanford’s three Latin Motets;

Beati quorum via integra est; Qui ambulant in lege Domini’. (Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: who walk in the law of the Lord). Psalm 119, Verse 1.

Regarded as Stanford’s finest unaccompanied work, it also passed Herbert Howells’ ‘fitness for purpose’ test! Howells, who was a student of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, said;

“Let that motet stand for works that by any criteria are not only highly accomplished but profoundly human and of surpassing fitness.”

Composed for six parts, the piece is scored as if for two choirs – three upper and three lower voices. The motet begins calmly but not slowly (con moto tranquillo ma non troppo lento) and is antiphonal; the lower choir responding to the upper; this order being reversed in the second line. The dynamic gradually builds to the end of the verse, to emphasise the text, which is then recapitulated, beginning with a mystical ‘Beati’ which emerges only to evaporate almost as quickly, across both choirs. Just as we lined up outside the Quire to perform the introit, my nose started to bleed; the light-headedness seemed to amplify the celestial quality of the music! (I am sure the motet can be appreciated just as fully without resorting to such extremes!) Luckily we were pretty well wedged in to the pews so there was no possibility of fainting – our number having been swelled by some most welcome visitors, including Elizabeth Gourd, Nicola Carver, Rosie Tweddle’s vicar the Reverend Edd Turner and the two bass Adrians – Butterfield and Hill. Luckily I had a handkerchief to avoid any surplice embarrassment. Whether warranted or not, tenors have acquired a reputation for the odd foppish trait, so the sight of me flapping a hankie around probably wasn’t a great shock to the congregation and certainly not to the clergy; and hopefully didn’t distract too much from our performance of Stanford’s beautiful motet.

The cathedral organ

Meccano building, train-spotting Percy Whitlock composed the piece we sang as an anthem during a rather sad year which saw him leave his post as Assistant Organist at Rochester Cathedral. Having sung in the choir (and assisted on the organ) since the age of thirteen, Whitlock was overlooked as Charles Hylton-Stewart’s replacement as Principal Organist and, snubbed, he decided to leave in 1930.

Despite his long association with Rochester and its organ, there was no recording of Whitlock’s music in the cathedral shop (perhaps they had sold out?) nor did the UK’s largest second hand bookshop in the High Street stock his biography. Thankfully the Percy Whitlock Trust has published his diaries and a series of excellent books which are available to buy online. For Evensong I sat on the Decani side of the stalls where Percy sang as a chorister and in which he filled the time during the sermon by drawing up specifications for imaginary organs.

We sang Be Still My Soul, the second of the Three Introits. The text is by W.D.Maclagan, a former Archbishop of York;

Be still, my soul, for God is near; the Great High Priest is with thee now;
the Lord of Life Himself is here, before whose face the angels bow.
To make thy heart His lowly throne thy Saviour God in love draws nigh
He gives Himself unto His own, for whom He once came down to die
I come, O Lord, I come, O Lord, for thou dost call
to blend my pleading prayer with Thine:
to Thee I give myself, my all, and feed on Thee, and make Thee mine. Amen.

Percy’s wife Edna, also a musician who shared his love for refurbishing clocks, said that Whitlock’s music could not be analysed bar by bar and should be considered as a whole. Sometimes unison, sometimes harmonised, the melody is led seamlessly by one voice to another. Even at its loudest, it retains a feeling of prayerful stillness. Particularly beautiful is the emphatic ‘I come, O Lord’.

It is not known precisely when in 1930 the piece was composed, but the first recorded performance is at St Stephen’s Church in Bournemouth, where the Whitlocks found themselves after leaving Rochester. On arriving, Percy found he had to re-build the choir almost from scratch after the previous organist and most of the men had walked out in protest at being asked to carry candles during a service. His diaries over the next three years recount his quest to boost the numbers (and talent) of the choir and his (rather comic) run-ins with the various parochial personalities, including a PCC stalwart (who sounds like bit of a battleaxe) who ran the Ladies Choir (the majority of whom seem to have had a soft spot for Percy) and a gentleman server who deputised as a second tenor who liked to wear a corset under his cassock. Eventually the tetchiness of parish life got too much (“Vicar blew up after mass. Hymn tunes again”) and, after a number of failed attempts to enter choral composition competitions, he left to become the organist at Bournemouth Pavilion where he found fame as a recitalist frequently appearing on BBC Radio, and as one of the most accomplished organist-composers of his generation, including a number of pieces of Light Music (a genre looked-down upon by those who moved in cathedral circles). He was later retained by the Bournemouth Echo as a music critic, writing under the pseudonym of Kenneth Lark, often reviewing his own performances.

The Armed Forces Day Parade

Despite all that happened in Rochester, Percy Whitlock later recalled his time in the choir there with great fondness;

“It gave me joy of a peculiar kind, which nothing can quite replace. It holds a place in my memory, something like the thought of happy days in the country, or childish holidays by the sea – they will not come again, but they are always there.”

Fitting words which also sum up memories of our own Rochester experience, with its bunting, parade, nosebleeds, two storey vestry and Kat Gourd’s oversize ‘thank-you’ lolly pop – not to mention the very special music.