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Music and text in Tewkesbury

23 September 2016

Liturgy is the soul of a choral festival, says Roderic Dunnett


“MUSICA DEO SACRA” is a Latin phrase associated particularly with Tudor-Jacobean church music. It is the title allocated by the composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) to his collection of sacred anthems, latterly some six volumes.

For music-lovers in the Midlands, however, this term also has another connection. Since as long ago as 1969, Tewkesbury Abbey has used part of the holiday period to host a Festival of Music in the Liturgy: a week-long celebration of the fruitful combination of sacred repertoire from every period, from the 15th to 20th centuries, with not just choral high mass and evensong, but also music for sung matins and late-night compline, both events that, as the long-term director of Musica Deo Sacra (MDS), David Ireson, points out, are not so often heard or engaged with nowadays.

Ireson’s involvement is a testimony to the endurance of this vital festival. He joined as a bass singer in the first year. He became director in 1978, and has devoted 39 years to overseeing its expansion, nursing its singers, and programming a generous range of music for his proficient choir, and for the Abbey’s rewarding acoustic.

Ireson has just retired from this leading position at the 2016 festival. His successor will be Carleton Etherington, a renowned recitalist who is also the longstanding organist of Tewkesbury Abbey and the festival organist.

MDS might be seen as a cousin in spirit, albeit in a more modest version, of the celebrated Edington Festival, in Wiltshire, which likewise puts great emphasis on apt performance of the liturgy — although this festival is for adults only. The services, carefully planned so as to cohere, are intended, as the Vicar of Tewkesbury, Canon Paul Williams, explains, to effect a “marriage” of liturgy and music. There is an aspiration that these occasions may “touch the heel” of God: “to do the best we can for him, who has done the best for us”.

The quality of singing is first-rate. The vocalists have often heard about MDS by word of mouth. Some come year on year. Currently, the participants are 12 men — several of them cathedral lay clerks — and ten women. There is a unity in the sound that Ireson has evoked, or evolved, which is exceptionally rewarding — whether in an introit for evensong or a complete Mass (for example, in this case, Haydn’s Harmoniemesse on the final Sunday), or a Requiem sung within its proper liturgical context — in this case, the Duruflé.

To hear these masterpieces in the context of a service was infinitely rewarding. In the Duruflé, all four parts were completely abreast of the tenderness and plangency of this uniquely beautiful work; but also the power and, at times, genuine anger of the setting (“libera eas de ore leonis”) were brought out in such a way as to capture with spirit the contrasts that Duruflé injects (such as the unexpectedly serene “Dum veneris” in the Libera Me), somewhat more than his predecessor, Fauré.

The Haydn was notably thrilling from the opening Kyries; and especially rewarding was the quartet of soloists that Ireson had drawn from the choir, vigorous and dramatic from the “Gratias agimus” section not least. But what mattered most of all was the sensitivity with which they were made to serve the expression of worship: the vibrancy and vivacity of the Credo, again including some splendid soli, and embracing a tenor and bass duet, and then bringing audible beauty to the intensely moving section of Christ’s burial. In both works, the choir brought out an overweighing optimism, which was bolstered by some uplifting support from the English String (or Symphony) Orchestra, which included woodwind, especially a clarinet who worked wonders throughout.

Among the rare items, one might include two Tudor works sung at compline: In pace, by Blytheman, and Christe qui lux es et dies, by Robert Whyte (White), alongside the glorious better-known Ave Maria by Parsons. From the present day, Simon Lindley’s Ave Maria figured in the first eucharist; likewise Memorare, by Timothy Blinko, the former Director of Music at Ealing Abbey. These were alongside a rich harvest of Walton and Howells, Stanford and Stainer, Bairstow and Harris.

MDS, to its credit, has commissioned many composers over the years, among them Andrew Parnell, who has a long connection with St Albans Abbey.

Ireson has aimed for a mixture of standard works and the fresh and unusual. One of their most thrilling experiences, he says, was performing James MacMillan’s Mass a couple of seasons ago, which he revived this August for a midweek festal eucharist. “It was a fantastic experience: it’s wonderfully written music.” The singers I spoke to agreed: the MacMillan was one of the most rewarding works they have done.

But rewarding, too, is the variety they experience in the actual rite, so as to embrace not just the 1549 Common Prayer Book, but also its (today unofficial) 1493 predecessor, reaching back to the reign of Henry VII, or the ASB, and, from time to time, the exquisite Sarum rite. The Rachmaninov Vespers have played a part, too: indeed, the Lord’s Prayer (Bogoroditse Devo) featured in the mass early in the week.

“Indeed,” Ireson says, “it’s the liturgy that I’ve always been most interested in. Ensuring a union between music and text is absolutely the thing our annual Musica Deo Sacra festival is about; and it’s the aspect which I like to think entrances our singers most. One wants them to have an enjoyable, but also a challenging, week. And the social side is important for all of us, too.”

Faced with two hours or more of daily rehearsal, the singers clearly make the most of their off-duty hours. Just glancing around, you can see that MDS is nothing if not sociable. As Canon Williams puts it, “I could equally well go to Greenbelt and feel just as uplifted.”

MDS, which annually fills the Abbey’s nave, is a glorious coming together: a joyous meeting of music, of the liturgy, and of people flocking to prayer.

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