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Radio review: The Essay: Talking about silence, In the Studio, and Record Review

22 April 2022

University of Oxford

The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch presented The Essay: Talking about silence (Radio 3, weekdays of last week)

The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch presented The Essay: Talking about silence (Radio 3, weekdays of last week)

THROUGHOUT the history of the Christian Church, there have been two cultures of silence: the one, pious and dignified, the other, despicable and mendacious. In The Essay: Talking about silence (Radio 3, weekdays of last week), the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch attempted a history of both, introducing himself in episode one as a historian intent on exposing the hypocrites of the past, and as a Christian who had for many years resigned himself to silence about his sexual orientation. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is, he told us, one of his guiding myths.

What followed was a curious anthology of vignettes and case studies, often illuminating and all delivered in a style both endearing and commanding. Wednesday’s programme, for instance, provided as neat and insightful a history of medieval monasticism as you could hope for in 15 minutes. On the whole, Professor MacCulloch’s waspishness was playful and provocative, although, in one ill-judged blast — against supposedly Covid-spreading mega-churches — he shifted into a register of nastiness which would have best been left undisturbed.

In the final episode, he returned to the other culture of silence, and attempted a long view of clerical child abuse. The case of the Piarists, whose mistreatment of children in the 17th century was only recently revealed by the historian Karen Liebreich, usefully exemplifies Professor MacCulloch’s vision of the historian’s duty to fill in the silences of the past. At the end of the series, however, one was left puzzled about the relationship between these two conceptions of silence: symbiotic, parasitic, or merely arbitrary?

The quiet of Lent should not, we are told, be broken by utterances of “Hallelujah”. But it was not possible to mark the anniversary of Handel’s Messiah without some reference to that most famous of choruses. We heard it being rehearsed as part of In the Studio (World Service, Tuesday of last week), in which the presenter, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, spent time with the conductor and chorus of a Glyndebourne performance that, post Covid restrictions, has been touring the country alongside the company’s usual operatic fare.

It was refreshing to hear from the chorus members how difficult the oratorio is, even for hardened professionals. An opera chorus typically get generous dollops of time backstage; Messiah offers no such respite.

In his contribution to Record Review (Radio 3, Saturday), Jeremy Summerly at least warned us in advance of the imminent utterance of the “H” word. But you cannot review almost a century’s worth of recordings without mentioning it. Included in the survey was a version from a Leeds-based choir in the 1920s; Sir Thomas Beecham’s epic reimagining; and the ground-breaking historical version from the Academy of Ancient Music, in 1980. It was pleasing to hear that this is a recording that can still hold its own against the competition.

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