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Remember Me and Never to Forget: A COVID-19 memorial concert at St Paul’s Cathedral

by
01 April 2022

Susan Gray heard the première of a new work

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The choir of St Paul’s sing at the memorial concert

The choir of St Paul’s sing at the memorial concert

FOR one moving moment, the audience for the St Paul’s Covid memorial concert were transported back to winter 1965, and Winston Churchill’s funeral.

Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu recalled watching the war leader’s state funeral as a teenager, and hearing Handel’s Dead March. She linked this historic national occasion to the dignity that the music and poetry of the concert, “Remember Me & Never to Forget”, gave to the NHS and social-care global workforce, and all who died in the pandemic.

Professor Nneka Anionwu continued that, as a former nurse, she was heartened to know that healthcare workers who died “were not just statistics. but have our own very special place in St Pauls and the nation”.

This historic comparison summed up the concert, which had to be contemporary and accessible, but held within the frame of the cathedral and its association with formal state occasions. The tone was set by the welcome from the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, who asked for no clapping after individual items, as it was a sombre occasion, affording remembrance of those of all “faiths and none”, a phrase repeated throughout the evening.

Sir Lloyd Dorfman, lead sponsor of Remember Me, called St Paul’s “the nation’s great remembrancer”. Sir Lloyd said that when an online book of remembrance had first been suggested, it was reported back that “the Cathedral has never moved on anything so quickly.” The site was up and running within two weeks. Describing himself as a British Jew, he emphasised how the event’s interfaith and inclusivity resonated with him. “Covid does not discriminate according to the God people worship.”

Bookending the sponsor’s introduction were songs from Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time. The performance by the choir of St Paul’s of “Steal Away” and “Nobody Knows” emphasised the pieces’ different tempos, “Nobody Knows” rendered in a dramatically syncopated, New Orleans style. In contrast, “Go Down, Moses” was far closer to the English choral tradition than the Mississippi.

Stephen McGann prefaced his introduction to Simon Armitage’s three poems “The Omnipresent”, “Lockdown”, and “The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash”, with the Poet Laureate’s own advice to start with informal words first. Poetry should not be approached with too much reverence and piety, as it was simply the distillation of the language we all shared. “The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash” perfectly captured the gnawing sadness of window visits to older loved ones in care homes, knowing that these prescribed, muted, touch-free encounters were possibly the last thing that you would have to remember them.

Never to Forget, composed by Howard Goodall, performed by the London Symphony Chorus, sang out the names of all the healthcare workers who died from Covid. Professor Anionwu praised the care that the composer had taken with the pronunciation and phrasing of names from healthcare’s global community. The roll call could be followed like a prayer, each name held in its phrase of rising and falling music.

St Paul’s is not the most dance-friendly space, but Ballet Rambert used their experience of taking ballet into urban landscapes, to bring the nave and quire alive with jumps, spins, and lifts. Wearing diaphanous grey costumes and barefoot, they ended the performance split between the cathedral’s north and south sides, the memories of the living and departed held in one magnificent space.

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