Some years ago, whilst I was on a Teacher Training Course, the tutor sought to find out more about his students. One question which he asked was concerned with the individual’s favourite piece of music, and for the choice to be justified. I recall responses such as songs by Van Morrison, Bob Marley and Carole King - popular singers and musicians. My own response caused some bewilderment for it was of an extended piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Many of my fellow students had never heard of it and others would have failed to acknowledge its superlative construction and its apogee of world musical genius.
I have a brother in Australia, whom I visit every two years or so (as a sibling duty you understand). On one occasion in my preparation for the journey he requested that I bring with me a particular performance (by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) on CD of the St Matthew Passion by J S Bach. This, he said, was his favourite piece of music. Co-incidentally, and without collusion, it was identical to my own. I had omitted to retain a copy myself but my grandson came to my rescue and was able (legally) to obtain one from the Internet to be used on my iPod.
Last weekend Barbara and I were privileged to go to St Alban’s Abbey by invitation of my sister Verena, who is a soprano singer, and a former School Headmistress. She was a member of a choir who were performing St Matthew Passion there. At the Abbey there were two choirs, the Harrow Choral Society Choir (of which my sister is a member, and also on occasion a soloist), and the Chiltern Choir. The music was provided by the Charivari Agréable, an orchestra using some mediaeval instruments, and was conducted by Simon Williams.
The musical form of Bach’s work is based upon passages in the Gospel According to St Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27. It has the following sections:
St Albans Abbey is a great brick building of considerable antiquity. It has been a sacred place for 1700 years, and was formerly a Saxon Abbey before the Conquest. The present Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban was consecrated in 1079. The interior contains many items of interest, including a shrine to the Saint, protected by a huge wooden watching tower. The Rose Window is a great artistic achievement, as is the Cathedra and many other structures, displays and machinery.
Alban himself was originally a pagan, being instructed by a priest called Amphibalus. When alerted that soldiers were searching for the priest in order to arrest him, Alban dressed in the priest’s clothing. The soldiers came, arrested Alban and had him executed. Thus Alban was martyred. In his honour the town of Verulamium was renamed St Albans.
We congratulated my sister and other performers for their wonderful performance, which must have been very complex and demanding a great deal of work and practice. Later that weekend Barbara and I attended the Church of St Mary, Harrow-on-the-Hill for the morning service. We were delighted to find that the Eucharistic Rite in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was being used. I am a member of the Prayer Book Society and a contributor of its Journal. The Society is devoted to saving, maintaining and promoting the BCP wherever possible, and deplores the ‘dumbing down’ and the banality of some modern and trendy rites. The old words of Thomas Cranmer are majestic, uplifting and revered. As has been said, albeit in another context, “If it ain’t broke - don’t fix it”!
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