EARLY morning just before Advent, with the dawn making the most
of it. A bright yellow wedge prises the fields from the sky, and
there is a glimpse of countless crazy birds, then a retreat into
The white cat sprawls on me as I drink
tea and contemplate St Cecilia, who "sang in her heart to God", who
was martyred in the third century, and who has a church named after
her in the Trastevere in Rome. In spite of all this, she more or
less disappeared until the 17th century, when John Dryden's "A Song
for St Cecilia's Day", 1687, returned her with delightful
The poem praises each instrument in
turn - trumpet, flute, drum, violin, and finally organ, possibly
suggesting Britten's Young Person's Guide to the
Orchestra. St Cecilia's Day was his birthday.
Watching the morning, I think of us
walking on the marshes with the blue-black Aldeburgh sea thudding
on the shingle, all this a long time ago. Dryden said that Cecilia
raised music higher than Orpheus, the latter being a pagan. But
then he had only a lyre: she was able to pull all the stops
I preach on church music on the feast
of Christ the King, and read the psalm that he and his friends sang
in the upper room, "When Israel came out of Egypt . . . and the
Lord turned the hard rock into a standing water, and the
flint-stone into a springing well.' The latter is more or less what
we still do ecologically at Wormingford. I also read George
Herbert's enchanting "Church Musick", that "sweetest of sweets"
which he helped to make in Salisbury Cathedral every Thursday.
On the radio, Colm Tóibín's musical
voice attempts to philosophise on the Irish dilemma - which makes a
change from Stephanie's fiscal hauteur and Evan's wicked grin. The
great novelist puts his own spin on what his nation has been up to
in good times and bad, and it is as acceptable as all the other
remedies. And nicer to listen to.
The Irish use language so beguilingly,
so seductively. That building spree! That finding the cupboard
bare! Well, what can you do about it, whatever? What'll you have?
He brings in Henry James, who never earned much, but did well. What
is beyond doubt is that the incessant money-talk of the present
time is wrecking life, and that something must be found to put it
in its place. If our lives are not to be half-lives, that is.
Jesus put money in its place, and
coolly. As did Matthew when he descended from the Customs and
Excise. There is an aldermanic tomb in a church near here that
declares that its owner, being both laden
with goods and charitable, passed
through the eye of a needle. As must have done the builders of our
wool churches. It was (sacred) economics, stupid.
I found a marvellous hymn by F. Pratt
Green, but, alas! we did not know it. Now there was someone who
sang to God in his heart. He once drove me to a poetry society in
Norwich. In his hymn "When, in our music, God is glorified", he
reminds us of that scarcely-to-be-imagined fact, Christ singing. It
would have been a beautiful voice from, maybe, Temple training. And
it would have been heard more than once, but no one recorded it.
"And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night. . . ?"
This column comes from Ronald
Blythe's latest collection of "Word from Wormingford", Village
Hours, which is published this week (Canterbury Press,
£14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-84825-237-0).