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Obsequies in Ealing

September 2011

Once upon a time, the parishioners of Ealing’s newly developed Brentham Garden Suburb worshipped in a corrugated iron hut in Pitshanger Lane. Now, the impressive St Barnabas Church, designed by Ernest Shearman, and consecrated in 1916, provides a place of worship with its roots in the liberal catholic tradition as it towers over the modest terraces of the suburb like a Spanish galleon among a crowd of fishing smacks,. The simile is not so fanciful as it might seem, since one of the most remarkable features of its design is the “Noah’s Ark” roof; and among the many other noteworthy features of its design and decoration is a picture of the Holy Trinity (attributed to Pedro Machuca), in which God the Father is depicted with a triangular halo; this, according to Gillean Craig, a former member of the clergy, is “an interesting way of confirming the theology of the Holy Trinity”. Altogether, an admirable setting for the music that was to be performed.

This event was possibly one of the most over-subscribed in the history of TVEMF (though your reviewer, a mere newcomer with but 14 years’ membership of TVEMF, stands to be corrected on this point). Sixty-six singers took part and at least another thirty applied unsuccessfully. Clearly the combination of Victoria’s beautiful Officium Defunctorum (composed for the obsequies of the Dowager Empress Maria, widow of the Emperor Maximilian II, and performed on April 22/23, 1603) and David Allinson’s inimitable and expert direction provided an opportunity not to be missed. Not only was the setting highly appropriate but, felicitously, the event took place on August 27th ,the date being, in David’s view of the available evidence, the exact 400th anniversary of Victoria’s death.

Much praise has been lavished on this work. Bruno Turner, in his introduction to the Mapa Mundi edition from which we sang, described it as glowing ”with an extraordinary fervour within a musical atmosphere of serenity and fitness for liturgical purpose”. Perhaps, as Allan Atlas surmises in Renaissance Music (Norton, 1998), that liturgical fitness was a manifestation of the effect of the Counter-Reformation and the decrees of the Council of Trent which “although they seemed on the surface to limit artistic expression, were intended to bring music and the faithful close to one another”; and he describes it,, together with two other masterpieces (Lassus’ Lagrime and Palestrina’s Song of Songs as “among some of the most beautiful and sensual music ever written”, with special praise for the poignancy of Versa est in luctum, the structure of which he perceives as progressing from “the hushed, almost mysterious paired imitation at the opening, through the agony at ‘nihil enim sunt dies mei’ to the sense of quiet acceptance at the end”.

More generally, in his own exposition of what makes Victoria’s music special, David drew our attention to the paraphrasing of chant, the breaking out of the modal structure and the way in which the music progresses not only horizontally along the line but vertically, in its harmonic structure.

The actual singing involved quite a lot of experimentation with the distribution of voices. The initial configuration with tenors and basses at the ends with the upper voices in the middle seemed to cause some difficulty in hearing all the parts, but the reshuffle after lunch with the lower voices in the middle was, perhaps, not a great improvement. There was a rather greater amount of scrambled singing than usual, and many, though not all of us found this more satisfactory as we were singing out into the body of the church and also, better able to hear the other parts around us. But whatever difficulties individuals may have encountered, there can be no doubt that this was a greatly rewarding, if challenging event, directed by David with all the erudition and good humour that we have come to expect. The warm-ups were less eccentric and the gastronomic and other similes perhaps more restrained then we have experienced in the past, though the reaction to the stolen cheesecake and the hissing of the angry librarian may come to take a permanent place in the warm-up repertoire.

Mention of cheesecake provides a neat segue into our thanks to Mary Reynor for yet another coruscating display of the cake-maker’s art, to Michael for organising the event, and to David for guiding us through one of the finest works of Renaissance liturgical music.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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