Peter Dutton rejoices at the return of music to our churches
On 6th September, choral singing (in the form of a professional quartet) returned to S. Silas, Kentish Town. S. Silas was built in 1912, and since that time has had various periods without a choir. However, for the church nationally, this recent lacuna in liturgical music has not been experienced since the Commonwealth. Then, the destruction of organs and the non-training of boys for well over a decade meant that the tradition had quite literally to be re-built from the ground up. In 2020 it was a bit more straightforward: I merely checked that the singers hadn’t been evicted from London and that, after a period of enforced idleness, they were still willing to get out of bed at a relatively early hour on a Sunday. Fortunately, they hadn’t been, and they were!
In the weeks leading up to the Lockdown, even the less liturgically minded of the singers would have noticed changes. Stoups were emptied, the Peace no longer exchanged, and communion was only given in one kind. The sense of ‘strangeness’ was heightened for us by the fact that we were performing from the ground floor, whilst the old organ in the gallery was removed, and the new one installed (a Hauptwerk system based around samples from Saint Etienne in Caen, and with definitely the most French console in London). ‘Hopefully we’ll be back for Easter’, I wrote to the choir, with the naivety of someone who thought World War 1 would be finished by Christmas. ‘Easter’ rapidly became ‘The May Devotion’ and then the S. Silas Weekend (in July). At that point I moved through the bargaining phase into glum acceptance, and sent no further emails.
There were many things I missed. The wonderfully expressive music of Lent and Holy Week. The way that the normally exuberantly florid church interior looks utterly stark on Good Friday. The moment that the organ strikes up on Holy Saturday before the Gloria, and darkness turns to light. That would have been the first time our new organ was heard. As the morning of what would have been the May Devotion dawned in glorious sunlight (as opposed to last year, when it rained), I imagined cramming strings and brass into the gallery, and then heading off down Chalk Farm Road braving the blank stares (and occasionally derogatory remarks) of the general public. Rationing myself to two small glasses of wine at the lunch, so that Vespers wouldn’t go with too much of a swing. Spending most of the Magnificat at First Vespers of S. Silas wondering exactly which altar was currently being censed, and how much improvisation would be needed before the Gloria. As it was, I struggled through my remote teaching (which did eventually get easier) and watched liturgical videos on Youtube (from the Old Normal, rather than the New) until late into the night.
When the choir eventually returned, I was then struck by all the things that I hadn’t realised I’d missed. The feeling of being ever so slightly under-rehearsed, and then the exultation of relief when it goes off all right and the Vicar pronounces himself satisfied. Listening to the banter between my tenor who loves musical theatre and my bass who really doesn’t. Heading off to the pub after Mass and discovering that, pandemic or not, the one drinkable beer will be ‘off’. Above all, I had missed making music with others, and feeling like a small but nonetheless important cog in a great big wheel. I discovered in my 20s that I had no priestly calling, but here, in liturgical music, I do feel I have found some form of vocation.
I spent about six months wondering what music to do when choral singing was once again permitted. I had all sorts of grand ideas: the Messe Solenelle by Louis Vierne, perhaps; maybe a rather complex piece of polyphony by Tallis or Palestrina. After attempting to harmonise a fairly simple bit of chant and discovering how rusty I was, I decided to play it safe. We sang Gounod’s Messe Breve, and Panis Angelicus by César Franck. As we entered the last page of the Franck, and the music moved to a climax before ebbing to its close, I realised I’d made the right choice (and the fact that it was exactly the right length for the Offertory was the icing on the cake). Afterwards, I was humbled and deeply moved by how many members of the congregation came up and thanked us. Professional musicians can be inveterate moaners and the line ‘Nobody ever says thank you’ is uttered quite a bit, but at S. Silas we are thanked a great deal, even when we haven’t exerted ourselves very much. There will always be less good days (as with any job), and moments when I pine after the Law Conversion Course that I once contemplated, but for now I remember Newman’s words: ‘And with the dawn those angel faces smile/Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile’. It’s great to be back!
Peter Dutton is the Director of Music at St Silas Kentish Town