Comfort Food

“The whole time I was reading “O Sing Unto the Lord,” I was making copious notes to go and rediscover some forgotten anthem. Time after time, passing references to pieces I’ve sung and loved brought me sharp pangs of nostalgia, followed by a sense of gratitude that this tradition has been such an important part of my musical world.”

I enjoyed reading an article by Nico Muhly today, where he comments on a new book – “O Sing Unto The Lord” –  by my old friend and colleague, Andrew Gant. The New York Times article is entitled “Why Choral Music Is Slow Food For The Soul.”

Nico’s closing paragraph – printed above – caused me to reflect on the music of my childhood, and ways in which connection to an early memory can reside deeply in one’s soul. It can also bring about a certain jarring effect when the same text is set to different musical material. This has very little to do with the relative quality of the composition, which is to a greater or lesser degree wrapped up in subjective reasoning. Rather, the jarring effect can be brought on by the feeling that a deep-rooted, emotionally driven relationship has been toyed with. This most certainly features pangs of nostalgia, feelings of comfort and, as Nico says above, profound gratitude for the connection.

One of the first anthems I remember singing as a boy chorister is Maurice Besly‘s sensitive, tenderly flowing and profoundly elegant setting of the evening collect “O Lord Support Us.”

LORD, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen, and the evening cometh, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done. Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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This is the tune I think of whenever the text is recited. I also rejoice in the inclusion of “this troublous life” which resonated so deeply as a seven year old chorister (!) along with “as the shades lengthen” which is just sheer elegance. Interestingly, though, in my current place of work, the setting used for several decades now is by my distinguished predecessor, Robert Powell. It is a lovely setting. Graceful, melodic, delicate, poignant. I have grown to love it. But the Besly will never be replaced in my mind, or in my soul.

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Another piece from my childhood is, of course, C.H.H. Parry’s setting of “I Was Glad.”

It is irreplaceable in my soul, even when compared to the magnificent early settings by Henry Purcell or John Blow. However, when I arrived in Washington DC in 1994, and we started planning the centennial celebrations of Leo Sowerby to take place the following year, I was quickly captivated by his setting of the same words, with its sweeping lyricism and elegant melodies.

Nowadays, the de rigueur setting is by another predecessor of mine at St. Paul’s School, James Carter Knox. While this is not strictly a setting of Psalm 122 (it includes a verse of Glorious things of thee are spoken, and tends to dwell on the “prosperity” side of the story which can arouse sensitivity in the 21st Century mind…) it is a much loved, appropriately puerile, romp of a tune, reminiscent of a good old Victorian drinking song, that has found its way into the hearts of tens of thousands of school alumni. My heart and soul remain unmoved. However, partly through a sense of duty, and partly as a defender of tradition, I have developed an affection for it. There is a value to this piece that transcends any of its musical shortcomings.

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Finally, as my dear colleague and Senior Chaplain of the school, Rev. Richard Greenleaf, recalled in a recent chapel talk, we are blessed with many musical settings of Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, all love’s excelling.” My favorite tune, having sung it at countless weddings, earning my 25p as a boy chorister, is Blaenwern, which even precedes Hyfrydol – the more popular tune match here in the USA – in my memory bank!

And yes, there is another one by my esteemed colleague, Mr. Knox, who wrote many hymn tunes during his tenure. Sung with great regularity during school chapels, convocations, memorials, weddings and graduations, Knox’s tune is possibly one of the most sprawling of melodies, galloping through a long and winding road of harmonic tension and release, with relentlessly clunky word setting. It is the theme song of the school, etched in the mind of the alumnus, whilst completely foreign to the visitor. While this shortcoming breaks one of the cardinal rules of what constitutes a good hymn, my affection for Knox’s version has grown over time, based upon the legacy it represents.

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(The questionable juxtaposition of familiar words with an unfamiliar tune is exceeded only by the other “school hymn” which does it in reverse, and imposes unfamiliar words on Holst’s well-known tune Thaxted.)

Why am I offering these thoughts? This is not some kind of hoity-toity, namby-pamby, artsy-fartsy, willy-nilly, blame-it-on-society, litany on why a certain piece of music is “better than” another. I simply refer back to Muhly’s quote at the top of this blog entry, and admit that my judgements, biases, preferences, passions, and good-natured pokes are grounded in nostalgia and love for a certain, specific musical journey. Above all, I too am grateful for a tradition that continues to bring comfort to my soul, feeds my spirit, guides my imagination, and grounds me as a musician.

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2 thoughts on “Comfort Food

  1. This is the best commentary I have ever read on the subject. We all experience that nostalgic warming of the soul to certain hymns and Anthems. Thank you for expressing so eloquently!

    Liked by 1 person

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