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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

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Ronald Blythe on the silent music of St Cecilia

THE sumptuous November days continue. Golden leaves hide the lawns, particularly those from the hedge hazels. Rainwater stays in the ruts. The ponds are glassy, and the skies are aquamarine and noisy with homing birds. Now and then, a drenched fox or rabbit lopes across the greening field where the winter wheat is showing.

A solitary figure descends the church tower to pack up, his task done. The time-wrecked finials that Sir William fancifully placed on its corners when Shakespeare was writing All’s Well That Ends Well have been replaced. Now, all that is needed is 50 years’ weather to blend them into the scenery. John, our Admirable Crichton, has also come down from on high, having taken advantage of the scaffolding to paint the clock.

I watch these conclusions from where I am brushing lichen from John Nash’s gravestone, where, in less than 30 years, his name struggles to be read; whereas, on the grand neighbouring tombs of the Constables, the deeply cut inscriptions continue to defy botany. The churchyard is a great untidy bed of seared yellow coverings through which the dead poke their names and pleas, yet again.

It is the feast of St Cecilia. I mention her at matins. She lay first in the cemetery of St Callistus on the Aurelian Way, this long-ago girl who “sang to God in her heart”, sharing ground with a pope who had done time in a Sardinian quarry. But now she has her own church of St Cecilia in Trastevere, where a statue shows her, naturally if unusually, lying on her side, sound asleep.

There she is, say all the composers: this remote person from whom traditionally flows the Church’s glorious music. What would she have made of the BBC’s Songs of Praise, I wonder. Had she composed a hymn, the programme would not have mentioned her name.

Cecilia was first celebrated at a service in London in which Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate in D were sung. Then, a century or so later, came the Cecilian Movement itself, for the reform of Roman Catholic church music. Now and then we “hear her”, as it were, signing in a quire window silently, as she nurses her emblem, a toy organ. “What passion cannot Music raise and quell?” asked John Dryden in his “Ode” to her. We sang, “My tongue shall ne’er tire of chanting with the choir,” I hope truthfully.

On Wednesday, the Powys contingent bumped down the old track, old friends from the Welsh border. I lit an ash-log to welcome them. I remember their tiny church at Discoed. It would have been a kneeling place for medieval shepherds. The poet Edward Storey has these past few years refilled it with singing.

We have lunch at the pub in Nayland, leaving the car on the hard where John Constable’s father’s barges dumped coal or anything else that travelled easier by river than by road. The weather then started to become a bit wild, or less serene, and willows thrashed about, and there was a mighty rustling. “More what you expect, like,” said a pleased old chap. Exactly.

I thought of the reduced light of Radnorshire, how it is diffused, how it avoids brilliance; whereas the light in East Anglia avoids nothing. It just pours down like one of those gifts from St James’s Father of lights, no matter if the sun is in. Thus the Stour goes on gleaming in its sullen fashion as the days draw in.

What to tell them on Sunday? Parables, poetry, and history flicker across the flimsy pages. There are two kings, reminds the Lectionary, Edmund and Christ. Also, there is Isaac Watts, hymn-writer, d. 1748. And there is Stir-up Sunday. But how about the young Saviour standing on the Temple steps, listening to the singing and joining in?

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