Thursday, 6 April 2017

On Hearing Howells on the Radio

I was listening to Essential Classics on BBC Radio 3 this morning. We have it on every day. There's a daily fixture at half past nine, a light-hearted challenge to test our knowledge and wits in the domain of classical music. I often have a go and tweet my answer, only to find a few minutes later that I'm hopelessly wrong.

However, today Sarah Walker played a piece of church music and under the rubric "mapping the music", asked us which place it was associated with. I didn't need to hear more than a couple of bars to recognise it. It was Herbert Howells' Gloucester Service, his setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis that are sung at evensong in cathedrals and choral foundations across the English-speaking world. Howells' setting of the evening canticles are regarded as among the noblest of the twentieth century. What singer doesn't love his Gloucester Service, Collegium Regale and St Paul's Service? I learned to love them as a chorister myself more than fifty years ago. I shall always love them.

But hearing Gloucester unexpectedly on the radio this morning had an arresting impact on me, so much so that I found myself on the edge of tears. Why was this? Because it was the music I'd chosen for my last ever service in Durham Cathedral as Dean. It is barely eighteen months since we said farewell to that wonderful place. Yet in retirement in our Northumberland village on the banks of the Tyne, it already feels an age away. It's as if it was another life, a distant world far removed from this one, wonderful at the time but now like a beautiful dream that has gone forever.

Like all dreams, memories are partial and selective. I am not rose-hued about my time in Durham: there were joys and ordeals, agony and ecstasy like there are in everything we give our lives to. But as I look back on those nearly thirteen years, they do feel to have been the most privileged of my life. Saying farewell to them and laying them aside was hard when the time came. In my last blog as Dean I tried to put this into words. They were raw then, and as I re-read them, those last treasured days come flooding back. Especially the memory of that farewell service of evensong:

The final service is evensong. There is a great crowd filling the nave. I walk the Lord Lieutenant up the aisle as I would at any big event. Then I think, disconcertingly, they are here because I am leaving. I don't mean they are not here to worship God - of course that is why we are at this service at all, but valediction is what has brought so many people together. I arrive at my stall and find a colourful folder put together by the choristers with pictures, personal messages from each of them, tributes and prayers. The tears in things are real even before the service has begun. As they are several more times during the service: at that amazing leap up to a top 'A' in the Gloria of Howells' Gloucester Service, the paradisal ending of Bairstow's Blessed City, our beloved Coe Fen (How shall I sing that Majesty?'), the beautifully crafted intercessions by Sophie the Canon in Residence, the final hymn 'Glory to thee my God this night', and laying up the Dean's cope on the high altar after the blessing.

This power of music to evoke memory was what was triggered by hearing the Gloucester Service again on the radio today. And listening to it again, I realised how exactly it seemed to fit the occasion. There's an undertow of melancholy in so much of Howells' music. For all its luminous beauty, it feels autumnal, elegiac, plangent, full of wistful longing. For all that his glorious settings of praise and celebration like the Magnificat sweep the spirit heavenwards, it's as if these moments of transfiguration in a major key have to be fought for. When you know something of the personal circumstances of Howells' life, the death of his beloved nine-year-old son Michael from polio, you realise that he "drew glory from a well of grief" for the rest of his life. Every Nunc Dimittis he wrote must have brought it back to him, this song of endings by one who has waited to see the promised Messiah before he dies. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."

Retiring was for me a kind of Nunc Dimittis: recognising what has been glorious and still is, being thankful, laying aside, saying farewell, departing. Every leave-taking is little death. That day was not just for saying goodbye to Durham. I was saying farewell to my working life, forty years of ordained ministry, and to all the people, all the communities among whom I had lived and worked in that time. I knew when we left Durham that it was a real ending, a parting of friends. The Gloucester Service seemed to symbolise that. 

It felt bitter-sweet at the time, this amazing music. How could it not? But life goes on, and is good because it is filled with so many lovely happy things. To live out of gratitude seems to me to be the secret of fulfilment: gratitude for all that has been, all that is, all that is yet to be. Howells' music has the capacity to help me reflect on that broader canvas and remember past days and years with thankfulness. Perhaps that's the task of this stage of life I am now in, growing older, having lived the greater part of my allotted years. The capacity to see things for what they are a little more clearly, and appreciate what is of lasting value in the changes and chances of human experience - I find this is life-giving in a rather surprising way. "Then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose / And the sea where it goes" wrote Matthew Arnold in a poem about the flow of human life that touches me.

In the eucharist, memory is linked with thankfulness for the goodness of God by which we live and that is the source of our hope. Thankfulness is what the word eucharist means. Whatever else I was experiencing as I listened to Howells this morning, wherever those tears came from, his music made me think once again about the goodness of things, how life is always a gift, how we are endowed with a feeling for "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars". Farewells are poignant, and so is the memory of them. But gratitude is all. And if I look a trifle forlorn in the photo of my final service in the Dean's stall, I seem to have cheered up a bit in the final image as we listen to a former Head Chorister's charming farewell speech.

Deo gratias!



1 comment:

  1. Your writing is beautiful and evocative but it is the pictures you have included that also tell the story. There's always a mixture of feelings when moving on to another stage of our life. One thing never changes: the love and goodness of God and God's intimate connection in our lives.

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