Page 10, 19th October 1979

19th October 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 19th October 1979 — Secret church with a special form of musical delight

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Locations: London, Liverpool, Surrey


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Secret church with a special form of musical delight

TO MASS last Sunday at St Michael's Abbey at Farnborough. It happened that months ago I wrote something rather dismissive about Church music within the Catholic Church in England.

My line is that for most of the time Catholic hymn singing tends to sound like heavy breathing or else is in so high a key that it sounds like the squeaking of bats. (Were hymns set to suit the voices of strictly enclosed nuns? For I certainly cannot imagine the remnants of the recusant upper classes encompassing the high notes of our Oratorian hymefologists (eg. Faith of Our Fathers) or the Irish exiled lumpen proletariat even trying to get up to those throat-aching peaks.)

I cannot describe why music matters so much in the Church. It matters as much as good prose and decent, not necessarily gorgeous vestments. And the Joyful Noise (or the deeply lugubrious one for that matter) is all one with architecture and painting and sculpture and even the jeweller's art in the required and proper effort to give some praise to God.

Some have dismissed church music, the work of the great Cathedral choirs who sometimes seem to sing away to themselves in some empty and massive and most ancient building, as serenading God. But it is, in Anglican churches, the hangover from the Opus Dei which is still performed in monasteries and a few Catholic cathedrals.

It is not meant to be an act of solidarity like the singing of the Red Flag at the end of a Labour Party conference. It is an end in itself. It is a form of prayer. It is a part of a whole attitude to God. Still, I don't have to justify good church music, except to the vilest and most intolerant sort of Puritan.

But there exists in this country a tristesve for the Tridentine Mass and for the music that, in memory, always seemed to go with it at High Masses. Indeed, in memory, those small parish churches whose design was invariably chosen by the Parish Priest — unless there was some wealthy peer who could not be denied since he was paying for the thing — used to be treasurehouses of cool plainsong and rich polyphony.

It was not really so. We tended to get "Full in the Panting" and "Daily, Dai6'" more often than the equivalents of the Vexilla Regis. In only a few places was a real musical tradition of good music kept up.

No one has ever described the Catholic Church as a streak of greased lightning, not even in praise. It is still digesting the liturgical fall-out of the Second Vatican Council. So you get some pretty peculiar local rites perfor

med round, in front of, behind and to one side of a free-standing altar, usually with the old, madly pinnacled altar, chosen from some ecclesiastical furnishers catalogue. standing almost rejected at the back. But something good and of a muted splendour is emerging. It has gone a long way at Farnborough.

Pinnacles a-bristle

NOW Farnborough is a most extraordinary place. It sits on a hill-top in the military conurbation that seems to flourish like a conifer in that part of Surrey. It has a curious history.

It was founded by the Empress Eugenie who, a Spanish noblewoman, married beneath herself to the great-nephew of Napoleon I, who in 1852 was elected Emperor of the French who had decided they would have another go at Napoleonic glory. Napoleon I was described by Wellington as "not a gentleman" and he did not mean by birth, for Wellington himself was only the son of the Irish peerage — "the gilded potato" his brother said when made a Marquess of that sort — and Napoleon Ill had waxed moustaches and a knowing look and captivated Queen Victoria.

However, to cut a rather overfurnished story short, although he ran a good government, Bismark, who smelt heavily of herrings, schnapps and power, forced him into war. And he was beaten at the Battle of Sedan. The French were cross. He was a prisoner of war, his son went to England, his wife Eugenie escaped from the Tuilleries in disguise and they were all housed in England, in Chiselhurst, where the Emperor died, rather painfully, in 1873.

The widow Empress, a friend of our own dear Queen, bought this curious estate in Surrey. It really consists of two peaks forcing their way out of the military underbrush. On one she built a house for herself in the French sort of style, with acres of parquet and double doors for stately progressing through in long trailing black skirts. She had a chapel there.

On the other hill she built a church where Queen Victoria provided a massive red polished granite sarcophagus for the Empress in the crypt. To quote someone else's joke, "Imagine resurrecting out of that lot!"

This is in the crypt in a stolid Romanesque sort of style. Unfortunately, the Prince Imperial, avid in exile for Napoleonic glory, joined the British army and was foolishly allowed to attend a war against the Zulus as a spectator. He got caught in an ambush, his escort got away, his horse bolted and he could not mount and he was killed.

The exact details of the death are always in dispute. It would have served the foreign policy of Britain better if he had lived. So he has a similar sarcophagus Opposite his father.

Eugenie bore no malice and the church she raised is one of the delightful oddities of this odd country. It is a 16th century sort of French church, with clear Gothic lines and a dome above the crossing of the aisles and nave.

It is enormous fun. It has long gargoyles that do not perform their function of spouting water away from the walls. It is a-bristle with crockets and pinnacles. It is astonishing to find in a clearing on a hill-top, almost secret in its wood and magnificent in marble floors. with a superb organ and a PYx (tabernacle), a round silver container, shrouded in silk, that rises and falls at the touch of an electric button and hangs high out of reach above everything. It sinks slowly at the touch of a switch and then sits upon the altar.

Winchester Cathedral has stilt the medieval apparatus for such a thing above its high altar. But then a monk had to crank it up and down.

Incense but no triangles

THE UPPER church is not vast, but it is splendid. There are now 17 monks who live in the half-finished monastery that the Empress built for them until she got rather cross about something and stopped the money-flow. It therefore has an unfinished and rather unclad air, but they have done a remarkable thing.

At first, Eugenie installed some Premonstratensian Canons from Storrington. They did not last long. Then she got monks from the great French abbey at Solesmes whose community, almost single-handed, restored the plainsong. But they were very French and postulants had to learn French to understand the reading in the refectory.

And then in 1947 the monks of Prinknash in Gloucestershire, who belong to the Subiaco congregation, took it all over. There are 17 of them there now, a dependent priory (I do not know the technical term) of the mother house at Prinknash.

Now they have done something with the liturgy that is overwhelming, makes translucent sense and conveys real joy.

They have an amateur choir. no drums or triangles or amateur recorder players. But a grand, magnificent choir, capable in this church of superb forri‘Aitni; they sing plainsong and polyphony of the utmost sophistication. They are all volunteers. They are unpaid.

They are not members of any monastic school for there is none, and not all of them are even Catholics. No one gets paid. It is done for the joy and the goodness of doing it.

The occasion on Sunday was the memorial of the dedication of the church. The Abbot of the mother monastery Prinknash celebrated pontifically. There was no extragavance here. Admittedly there were more clouds of incense than I have seen in many months of Sundays but it was all slow and superb and very beautiful and the church was packed.

It is not easy to describe a congregation unless you choose to be offensive. Obviously a lot of them were of military extraction. Obviously a lot of them were exceptionally devout, but there were a surprising number of young people and the Mass made no concessions to time or fashion.

I suppose that this must be the most splendid choir within the Catholic Church in this part of England. I had expected nothing like this. I was amazed to hear this singing and organ playing on a cathedral scale in this almost secret church.

The drive up to the monastery was lined with motorcars, because people come for miles to attend. There were children within the congregation, but no baby cried; and, when it was called for, the congregation joined in singing the Credo in Latin and the hymns in English and it really was a special form of delight which, perhaps, should not be entertained as the strictest form of Christian.

But basically it was simple. The Abbot in an almost humble mitre which he put on for himself — no easy task to get it right — sat behind the altar as simply as a priest in any parish. They have clearly here worked out a liturgy that pleases and satisfies a very large number of different sorts of people. This is part of the transition of the Church and it is magnificent to find the Benedictines once again performing their traditional role as leaders in the liturgical field.

If you wish to go to Mass at Farnborough, it is at 10.15 on Sunday morning. It is not always on quite this scale, but on ordinary Sundays the monks and the congregation and the choir sing together antiphonally.

The monks of Farnborough have produced a beautiful parish book of plainsong chants which are in the modern system of notage and which I would recommend above all others to anyone who wants to recreate their Tridentine dream within their parish or, more accurately, to sing decently A.M.D,G.

Pitched for salvation

BUT this renaissance of Church music is not confined to the harsh luxuries of monasteries or to the great southern cathedrals. It is good to hear that Catholic Liverpool is making heroic efforts to become a centre of an art, which, despite their fidelity, was not the thing for which they were famous.

Almost everyone who knows it, has a special regard for I.iverpool. except perhaps the Liverpudlians and they will knock you down if you knock the place.

It has a splendid tough musical tradition of its own horn out of Ireland crossed with a superb contempt for the rest of the world. But they have two great cathedrals and the Catholic one has one of the greatest organs in the world.

It was designed by a friend of mine who is now dead and is doubtless deafening heaven and splitting clouds and de-feathering angels with the splendour of his noise.

He too, was a monk and I never knew he had such a gift.

But the Liverpool Catholic is more used to the rosary than to the public splendours of the Roman Church, especially when they arelnot — how shall I put it? — assertive?

Yet they have now in their midst a cathedral which like all the great cathedrals in the world. is becoming or is aiming to become a centre of a culture which is the image of their faith.

So that great round concrete tent pitched on the way to salvation without undue extravagance is becoming a musical centre.

And their choir and their organ are extraordinary and, thank God, for once, something great is happening outside London and regut islarly i

Fairly new concept in Liverpool which has created its own marvellous music — rough. But there under the great lantern there are marvellous concerts arranged by the Master of Music, Terence Duffy.

And if you think this is a puff to igorrl.ihvetsr.pool music, you are dead

Down here in the lush south of Hampshire where palm trees grow in the graveyards and tendrils of strange vine tap our stained glass windows we have churches that rock with apostolic songs.

The North has long been famous for the use and splendour of its choirs. But fashions coge,. For example. on October 24.. at 7.30pm, long before they Close. Terence Duffy is giving an organ recital in the Metropolitan Cathedral. For the sake of 1.iverpool, beauty, pride, progress and perhaps even of God, the round space dedicated to Christ the King should be packed.

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