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York concert marks Sterne’s birth

18 October 2013

Paul Wilkinson hears a musical piece inspired by Laurence Sterne's final sermon 

 

 

national portrait gallery

 The clergyman-novelist: Laurence Sterne, in a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

 The clergyman-novelist: Laurence Sterne, in a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

TO MANY of the young faces in the four school choirs that performed at York Minster this week, the man in the pulpit must surely have been Argus Filch, the caretaker at Harry Potter's alma mater, Hogwarts.

But the black gown and white wig donned by the actor David Bradley served to identify him as the 18th-century clergyman and novelist Laurence Sterne.

Mr Bradley's was the lead character on Monday night of the première of a musical work, Voice from the Pulpit, written by Professor David Owen Norris for the Laurence Sterne Trust, to mark the tercentenary of Sterne's birth in 1713.

The 60-minute piece is inspired by Sterne's final sermon, "The Case of Hezekiah and the Messengers", which grapples with the moral problem of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. It features Sterne (Bradley) delivering his homily, first given in 1764 to the British ambassador in Paris. His words are interwoven, and occasionally overlaid, with music performed on contemporary instruments, choral singing, and the voice of a tenor echoing the cleric's words.

Sterne is best known today as the author of the novels Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, but, during his lifetime, his sermons were as famous as his novels, and the Trust's commission was intended to draw attention to this neglected material.

The Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Brigg, who conducted the performance, selected a choir of 40 children from four primary schools around Coxwold, in North Yorkshire, where Sterne was vicar and where his home is now preserved as a monument to his work. The venue recalled Sterne's appointment as a prebendary of York Minster, and also his great-grandfather's position as Archbishop of York.

The performance in the minster's quire opened with a fanfare on a natural trumpet by Michael O'Farrell, followed by the overture from the York String Quartet, led from the square piano by the composer. Mr Bradley - a York man himself - delivered the monologue.

The acoustics, however, meant that occasionally the music of the quartet was lost, and Professor Norris said afterwards that his piano - similar to one used by Sterne - might be too delicate a sound for such a space. He is hoping to put on further performances in the cathedrals at Coventry and Winchester, and concedes that an instrument with more "oomph" might be required.

The sound of the viola da gamba, played by Susanna Pell, was particularly atmospheric, especially in conjunction with the tenor Mark Wilde in the slow and pensive passage "Prayer".

The work's exuberant finale is a setting of the epitaph on Sterne's gravestone, now in the porch of St Michael's, Coxwold. The title "Sterne, was the Man" is taken from the couplet:

Sterne, was the man, who with gigantic stride
Mowed down luxuriant follies, far and wide.

Professor Norris said: "Sterne's epitaph says it all: 'Sound head, warm heart, and breast humane'. Add to that his astonishing mind, and the fact that the man could really write, and you have something irresistible."

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