Thursday, 13 October 2011

St Edward the Confessor, Henry Purcell and broken teeth

Our local feast day.  St Edward, apart from being the patron saint of those in difficult marriages, is also the patron saint of the City of Westminster.  St James's Spanish Place, and indeed St Mary's Bourne Street, are both situated in this ancient city.  Tonight, Westminster Abbey have a Sung Eucharist for the Translation of St Edward, October 13 the date in 1269 when his mortal remains were transferred to their current location in a chapel at the very far east end of Westminster Abbey.  On Saturday, they mark the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward with  Evensong and a Procession. 

St Peter's Abbey, or the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, which of course we now call Westminster Abbey, was rebuilt by St Edward as a royal burial church, but that is not the building we see today, which was erected by King Henry III in the latter part of thirteenth century.

St Edward of Westminster, pray for us, or as we used to sing in the Litany of the Saints at Bourne Street, Sancti Edwardi Westmonasteriensis, ora pro nobis.

One of the names most associated with Westminster Abbey is Henry Purcell.  We all know of Purcell as one of the greatest English composers, his works are widely performed, but in fact he is one of most unknown characters in music history.  Most writings about his life rather than his music indulge in a lot of speculation, reasonable guesses and inferred likelihoods.  One of the intriguing little mysteries about Purcell (whose name most musicologists will encourage you to say like the washing powder, but in fact we just don't know) is whether he was a Catholic.  Although he finished his life on good terms with the Chapter at Westminster Abbey, I recall an anecdote (which may have been no more than the same speculation as referred to above) told during one of my undergraduate music lectures that the Abbey were so concerned that he might be a secret Catholic that on one occasion they forced him to receive communion. 

O God, Thou art my God, filled with delightful "English cadences" that generate a wince of delight amongst musicians, is quite typical of Purcell's church style, to the extent that such a composer ever has a typical style: he was a master of many styles.  If you listen all the way through, you will notice the final Alleluia is something you will surely recognise.  

If you can't think how you know the final Alleluia from that motet, then watch this, sung at Westminster Abbey upon the occasion of the Holy Father's visit in 2010.  This hymn was also a regular favourite for the congregational singing of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum at St Mary's Bourne St, and no doubt still is, when the temptation to sing the text to Cwm Rhondda can be resisted.

One of my favourite pieces of Purcell is a tour de force in which he shows off his mastery of several styles.  It is also highly unusual, being one of only two sacred pieces set by Purcell in Latin (no, that is not the reason why I like it). "Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei" is not as widely sung as it could be, but always pleases when it is.  The psalmist's reassuring text "Qui percussisti omnes inimicos meos maxilliam, dentes improborum confregisti" is perhaps one of those lines that surprises the modern, desperately sensitive ear : 'Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek-bone, Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked’. 

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