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Reclusive life is made a mass

22 May 2015

Garry Humphreys on a missa brevis for the St Albans celebrations

© donato cinicolo

Seven martyrs: new painted stone statues by Rory Young, given by Richard and Susan Walduck, have been installed in the niches in the nave screen of St Albans Abbey. They are (left to right): Oscar Romero, who is to be beatified tomorrow; St Alban Roe, a recusant priest held for a time in the Abbey Gatehouse before his execution in 1642; St Amphibalus, whom St Alban sheltered; St Alban; George Tankerfield, a Marian martyr in St Albans; St Elisabeth Romanova, killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Seven martyrs: new painted stone statues by Rory Young, given by Richard and Susan Walduck, have been installed in the niches in the nave screen of ...

ONE of the ways in which St Albans Abbey has celebrated the 900th anniversary of its dedication in 1115 is by commissioning a setting of the communion service from the Dubai-based British composer Joanna Marsh.

Seeking a historical subject as inspiration for the piece, she chose the 12th-century recluse Christina, who became prioress of the Benedictine monastery at Markyate, between St Albans and Dunstable.

In Missa Brevis Christina of Markyate, Joanna Marsh takes events in Christina's life and associates them with various movements of the mass: the Kyrie reflects Christina's spiritual awakening as a young girl at St Albans Abbey; the Gloria reflects the persecutions of her own family for resisting the advances of the importunate Bishop of Durham and for failing to consummate the marriage to a young nobleman arranged by the Bishop as revenge; which led her to take refuge with the hermit Roger.

The Sanctus reflects Christina's determination and resolve (echoing the lilting rhythms of the Kyrie), and the Benedictus the hard times that befell her family, forcing them to beg for her forgiveness; and in the Osanna the annulment of her marriage and emergence from her refuge is recalled.

The Agnus Dei is linked to the visions she experienced, enabling her to see into the future, and the passion she felt at the presence of God.

Joanna Marsh, who was born in 1970, studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; so must be entirely familiar with the services of the Church and the music written for them, but sometimes the characterisation seems at odds with the words. Although the Kyrie and related Sanctus are marked "lilting", the instruction at the start of the Gloria is "biting", and the discords that end so many of the movements seem unwelcoming on paper.

At the first performance in St Albans Cathedral on 10 May, however, the cathedral acoustic took the sharp edges off many of those discords and the results were very pleasing, and much of the music had a medieval feel, as if reflected through a 21st-century mirror.

We were deprived of the Kyrie, in favour of the cathedral's customary plainsong version, which seemed unfortunate, given that this was a world première in the presence of the composer, but I understand this was because the service would otherwise have been too long. However, the other movements of this demanding unaccompanied mass received a masterly performance - very well prepared - from the cathedral choir under its director of music, Andrew Lucas.

Much of it was beautiful - some of it sublime - but ultimately not uplifting, I am sorry to say, even at "Dona nobis pacem". Perhaps it reflected too much the difficulties under which Christina exercised her faith, which for the listeners should surely be resolved, if only at the end, as a symbol of hope, which I am sure Christina had in plenty.

Evidence suggests that The St Albans Psalter was created for Christina by Geoffrey de Gorham, abbot of St Albans from 1119 to 1146, and probably kept in her priory at Markyate, but during the English Civil War was taken by a fugitive English Catholic to an English Benedictine monastery in Lower Saxony, and, when that monastery was suppressed in 1803, found its way to Hildesheim, where it currently resides in the Dombibliotek. The illuminated initial letter for Psalm 105 is thought to depict Christina.

The St Albans Cathedral Choir will be singing Joanna Marsh's new Mass at the Hildesheimer Dom on Sunday, and there will be performances in Hanover and Brunswick on the days before and after.

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