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Word from Wormingford

28 December 2011

Ronald Blythe praises church music and faithful choir-singers

THE tremendous Scottish gale is “noises off” as I write. It is roaring over Leargan, where we have sat, read, talked, and rested many a summer. It will be hooting down its chimneys, crashing through the plantations, and bringing down deadwood in piles. Here, at Botten­goms, it is but the faintest tail-end of its strength. Just enough wind to bowl the oak leaves over the grass.

Picking up the post from our fine new box in the orchard — to save Jamie’s steps — I see primroses in flower. Not that this braggadocio on their part will stop the winter. It is mild and rough. Rooks blow about, ditchwater gathers strength. The white cat is a cosy breathing ball in the old dairy where the lawnmower lives. “Call me in April.”

The funeral of an old choir-friend in a full church. I hear her singing voice as I say a prayer about her and music. Everywhere, these faithful singers, and at all times. Dear souls who know their Merbecke from their Advent anthems, who ring bells, robe, hold the worship together. What a space she leaves, what a silence.

Earlier this month, we celebrated the feast of St Ambrose, the singing Bishop of Milan. A fourth-century judge, he was offered his see before he had been baptised. Didn’t George Herbert go to Bemerton before he was wholly in holy orders? Another singer, if you like. But it was Bishop Ambrose who demanded congrega­tional singing, not just choir singing. The Church itself must lift up its voice, as in Songs of Praise.

Sometimes, watching the latter, and all this complex religious doctrine set to music, I do wonder what is happening. Probably no more than the blissful act of singing itself. The youthful TV choirmaster goes to schools where boys and girls have never sung. How strange this is, and how have educationists allowed this to happen? Huge establishments without a song? Ambrose would have been nonplussed. I am nonplussed.

I hear the enviable voice of a schoolfriend in the great Suffolk wool church soaring in the solo, our Welsh rector with his head aslant in professional appreciation. The Early Church sang Ambrose’s Splendor paternae gloriae — “O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace” — every Monday morning, it is said.

Ambrose is the father of church music in Latin Christianity. Lost at the Reformation, it was discovered again by the Victorian translators.

St Augustine listened to Ambrose’s hymns: “How greatly did I weep in thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of your sweet-speaking church.”

They said that Ambrose had a style that was peculiar to himself, clear, sweet, vigorous, grand . . . without glitter, but bright and calm, severe yet enthusiastic. Arians — a sect who denied the divinity of Christ — accused Ambrose of bewitching Christians with his music.

I am easily seduced by church music, now and then losing my place when I am taking the service and coming to with a jolt. Last Sunday, the whole of matins tumbled out of my Prayer Book on to the floor, and had to be taped back in as soon as I returned home.

And now for Nine Lessons and Carols, begun at Truro, Ambrosianly raised to the heights at Cambridge. But sung pretty well by us at Wormingford.

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