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
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
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
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
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