Living History

This past week gave me the privilege of being in Canterbury, England as the organist for a friend’s choir during their fourth residency at a British cathedral. Christ Church, Glendale (Ohio) is an all-volunteer choir that has flourished for nearly 30 years under their director, Bryan Mock.  They sang traditional English cathedral music, including Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. And as anyone who has done something like this knows, there is A LOT of music to prepare for a week’s worth of service at an Anglican cathedral. I got to hide out in Canterbury Cathedral’s organ loft, playing the music of Howells and Langlais and Bach, not to mention the anthems of Finzi and Elgar and Sumsion, just a few yards from the very spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170.

Talk about living with history.

Just a year ago I traveled with a different choir to sing in the great churches of France, and where we held an emotional service of remembrance at the American Cemetery, near the landing beaches of Normandy.  This summer I visited the tunnels in the white cliffs of Dover and learned about their role in World War II, particularly the evacuation efforts that rescued more than 300,000 soldiers and refugees from Dunkirk.  So interesting to be on the other side of the English Channel this summer, seeing the countryside where the Battle of Hastings was fought after seeing that story depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry last summer.

As with the Finzi anthem (composed in 1946), the war’s effect on Britain was surely foremost in the mind of Herbert Howells when he wrote the organ piece Master Tallis’s Testament in 1940.  Perhaps writing as the Battle of Dunkirk was waged during May and June of that same year?  Was he trying to recall England’s great Renaissance glory during those darkest days?

I played this lovely piece as a prelude to Canterbury Cathedral’s Sunday Eucharist this week.  It’s one of several pieces that highlight the draw that the Tudor period had for Howells, and he created in this work his own testament to British culture. Sixteenth century sensibilities combine with twentieth century emotions to take the listener (and player) from the courtly to the anguished, overlaid with the British melancholy that colors so much of the music of Finzi, Britten and Vaughan Williams as well.  In fact, Master Tallis’s Testament surely owes much to Vaughan Williams.  An 18 year old Howells was at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival, sitting next to the composer during the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ orchestral piece Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Two of my very favorite pieces are more deeply connected than I had realized:

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams)

Master Tallis’s Testament (Herbert Howells)

So many connections to make. The Battle of Hastings, the murder of an Archbishop of Canterbury, the flowering of English music and literature in the 16th century, the Three Choirs Festival of 1910, World War II, an American women in 2016 (“a lady organist! We don’t see very many of those,” so said a verger at Canterbury Cathedral). A few of the strands that create the tapestry of a life.  Some of the ways to live with history.


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Where I’ll be:
August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 a.m. rehearsal.

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.

Save the Date: Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

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