I started writing this, relaxing in the warming Monday afternoon sun – between April’s typical “cruellest month” steely downpours… – listening to yesterday morning’s Radio 4 Sunday Worship – a service I attended, in Stratford-upon-Avon’s beautiful Holy Trinity Church: gently led by the humane, sincere and companionable Vicar, the Reverend Patrick Taylor.
The reason I was there (initially) was yet another appearance – in a week where they appeared to have set up home on the West Bank of the Avon (both at the church and at the RSC – the nearest thing Stratford has to a ‘cultural quarter’, I suppose) – by the indefatigable David Curtis and his Orchestra of the Swan (a very early start, after a late, celebratory night). However, come for the music, stay for the ceremony!
As I said to Revd Taylor, after the service, I simply cannot remember “the last time I sat on this side of the action”: first, having sung in cathedral and church choirs from the age of five; then having been a parish church choirmaster. When I have wriggled in worrying wooden pews since, it has always been for mainly secular music, or the inspiring architecture (and the atmosphere which that engenders); and yet – atheist that I am (although one with demonstrable admiration and respect for many aspects of faith, I hope…) – I found myself rapidly and happily immersed in the long-familiar liturgy; the consolatory customs of soothing ceremony. (It really did feel like – albeit oddly, at first – ‘coming home’.)
Admittedly, this was aided by the dominance of some truly beautiful English music (including Walton, Morley, Stopford, Finzi – Fear no more the heat of the sun, attractively communicated by David Pike – and Holst, as well as the church’s own wonderful Benedict Wilson); but I am happy to admit that I also effortlessly found ease within those sympathetic words of observance.
If thou hast any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
– Shakespeare: Hamlet (I.i.129-133)
The service – commemorating, of course, “the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare” – was entitled ‘From Grief to Glory’, and subtly followed the rites of the Church of England funeral service: from “the priest meeting the body at the church door” to “Paul’s absolute confidence in the resurrection”.
The service therefore opened with David Suchet powerfully proclaiming Constance’s lament for Arthur, her son – a possible reflection of Shakespeare’s own desolation at the loss of his own Hamnet, in August 1596, aged just eleven… – mourning, movingly, over Walton’s heartrending Death of Falstaff passacaglia, from Henry V –
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well! Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
– Shakespeare: King John (III.iv.93-102)
The first five lines would later be repeated in a radiant choral work by choirmaster Wilson; and we were also treated to a striking new anthem by Philip Stopford, with words by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Paul Edmondson (who also delivered the affecting sermon).
If I was surprised by my own reaction to such religion, one could only be astonished at the stamina of conductor and orchestra. (Although it has to be said, Curtis’ directing of the outgoing voluntary, from Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, was extremely laid-back… – and rightfully so!)
As I finished drafting this, I started listening (again) to Dobrinka Tabakova’s Immortal Shakespeare – which was broadcast on Radio 3, also on Sunday. Yet again, its power stopped me in my tracks. I therefore simply closed my eyes, and let the music flow through me – especially the compelling Never doubt I love (and its gobsmacking choral entrances). This, for me, seemed the most fitting way to celebrate Shakespeare’s life. (“Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.”)
Music! Awake her! Strike!
’Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come;
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay, come away;
Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you.
– Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (V.iii.98-103)
What a week that was! Happy Birthday, Bill!