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Word from Wormingford

23 November 2012

Ronald Blythe thinks of St Cecilia pulling all the stops out

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 darkness.

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 panache.

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 out.

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).

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