Sunday, 2 November 2014

The beauty of choral evensong

One of the highlights of my month is singing in choral evensong at St George's Church in Parktown. Evensong is peculiar to the Anglican church and is taken from the Book of Common Prayer with most of the liturgy sung rather than spoken. St George's evensong takes place on the first Sunday of each month, followed by sherry in the hall. It is a beautiful service which leaves one feeling spiritually enriched and ready for the week ahead.

I joined the choir at St George's in 2006, having sung bass in a quartet arranged for our special friend Jenifer Williams' funeral there in June of that year. Her elder daughter, Sarah, asked me to sing as she knew I had a voice and regularly entertained her mother's lunches and dinners with impromptu renderings of various choral pieces - her favourite was Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor which has a soaring bass part. Sarah and the organist, Peter Black, chose the music for the funeral, amongst which was Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus which brings tears to my eyes every time I sing it. After the funeral Peter asked me to join the choir, and since then I have been a regular.

Tonight's evensong was particularly beautiful. We have a new organist, the highly talented Marnus Greyling, not yet 25 years old, who we found after Peter left us two years ago. Our Director of Music, Richard Pantcheff, who read music at Christ Church, Oxford, is a prolific composer and skillful conductor. They put together a programme rich in tradition and symbolism. An added treat was having Dr Simon Linley conducting Lead me, Lord, our recessional motet, by Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

Lead me, Lord,
lead me in Thy righteousness,
make Thy way plain before my face.

Lead me, Lord,
lead me in Thy righteousness,
make Thy way plain before my face.

For it is Thou, Lord, Thou Lord, only
that makest me dwell in safety.

For it is Thou, Lord, Thou Lord, only
that makest me dwell in safety.

Simon, a life-long friend of Richard's, is the organist at Leeds Cathedral in England and is over here to play some organ recitals, including one at St George's on Friday which sadly I could not go to.

An innovation which the church's music committee, of which I am a member, introduced two years ago is a half-hour organ recital before evensong starts. This was to make the most of our new organ built by the Austrian organ-builder Rieger Orgelbau which was consecrated by the Bishop of Johannesburg on Easter Sunday, 2012, reputedly the first new pipe organ installed in an Anglican church in South Africa for 70 years. The combination of these recitals, and the ever-expanding repertoire of the choir, has seen our evensong congregations swell from a mere handful to well over 50.

Today we had Johan Swanepoel, one of the many young organists (including Marnus) schooled by Professor Wim Viljoen at Unisa. His programme was very powerful, including pieces by Buxtehude, Langlais, Coulter and Guilmant, which tested our magnificent organ to the limit.

The service began with a silent procession of the choir from the west door up the aisle to the choir stalls on either side of the organ at the back of the church. The introit was Concord, by Benjamin Britten, a choral dance from his opera Gloriana composed in honour of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953:

Concord, concord is here
Our days to bless
And this our land to endue with plenty
Peace and happiness.

Concord, and Time
Each needeth each:
The ripest fruit hangs where
Not one, but only two can reach.

The responses were composed by Richard Pantcheff and first sung at St George's earlier this year, and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis were by Basil Harwood. The latter, again, are canticles special to the Anglican church and many famous composers have tried their hand at them - one of the best known being Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's - listen to an orchestral version of his Magnificat in B Flat (he also composed one in C) here.

The anthem was O thou the central orb by Charles Wood, a boisterous piece which is mostly sung in full voice and requires a lot of breath.

O thou, the central orb of righteous love,
Pure beam of the most high, eternal light
Of this our wintry world, thy radiance bright
Awakes new joy in faith, hope soars above.

Come, quickly come, and let thy glory shine,
Gilding our darksome heaven with rays divine.

The saints with holy lustre round thee move,
As stars about thy throne, set in the height of God's ordaining counsel, as thy sight
Gives measured grace to reach, thy power to prove.

Let thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin, Our nature all shall feed eternal day
In fellowship with thee, transforming day
To souls erewhile unclean, now pure within.

After the recessional, Marnus played Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber, arranged for organ by William Strickland. This is often played at funerals because of its haunting character and is the title music for the movie Platoon.

By a dreadful twist of fate Diana got a phone call a few minutes ago from my cousin Selby Chance that his wife Jenifer died yesterday of leukemia. She was diagnosed in Scotland two months ago and was receiving treatment for it in Johannesburg since then. She stayed with us for ten days before going to her sister Vera in Hilton. After coming off the chemotherapy her condition worsened suddenly. It is a terrible shock for Selby and their sons Fergus and Richard.

I first met the family, who live in Zimbabwe, in 1984 on the last leg of my trans-Africa journey and we have kept in close touch since then. Selby is the youngest of three brothers who all lost their farms to the Mugabe-inspired farm invasions of the 2000s. Fergus and Richard bravely chose to stay on and are doing their best to make a go of it in that god-forsaken country.

My time at St George's began with a funeral for a Jenifer and now another Jenifer passes on. Jenifer Chance, may your soul rest in peace.

It seems fitting to end this post with the words of the Nunc Dimitis:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

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