Music and Ecumenism – 24 January 2017

As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end (but may our prayers for Christian unity continue!) here is the link to a too-brief snippet of a concert performed yesterday (24 January 2017) at St. John’s Lateran, Rome, by the combined forces of the Sistine Chapel Choir and the Westminster Abbey Choir.

The combined choirs have performed together in Rome before yesterday in a historic occasion in 2012.   On that occasion, the choirs sang at St. Peter’s Basilica and in a liturgical context: in the Mass on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul and for the Imposition of the Sacred Pallium on Metropolitan Archbishops.  It seems this was “the first time the pope’s 500-year-old choir has allowed any other group to sing with it, let alone one from the breakaway Anglican Church.”

Yesterday’s performance was a concert rather than singing in the liturgy. But it was a performance at St. John’s Lateran, which is—in spite of the Baroque immensity of St. Peter’s—the actual cathedral of the pope as bishop of Rome.  So this might be regarded as another historic first.

In this clip, you can hear a bit of Hubert Parry’s “My Soul, There is a Country.” This anthem is an exemplar of the Anglican choral heritage for several reasons.  Parry’s liturgical music, along with that of Stanford and others, represents the turn of the previous century’s development of the Anglican choral-music revival of the nineteenth century.  This revival had often generated more enthusiasm than quality.  So the craftsmanship and influence of Parry, Stanford, and others established not only vibrancy but also re-established solid musical standards as the benchmark for Anglican choral music.  (Yes, a number of these composers, Parry included, were typical among the Victorian/Edwardian intelligentsia in their rejection of orthodox Christian belief.  Nonetheless, solid musical standards and the ability to choose texts of both theological and literary quality often resulted in works that could stand artistically and theologically on their own merit.)

Another reason this anthem is significant is the fact that it sets a text of Henry Vaughan, one of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical Poets. Vaughan, a Welshman, though educated at Oxford, resisted the theology of the Puritans and the Commonwealth.  His poetry had been dismissed until it was revived by members of the Oxford Movement in the late nineteenth century, which would establish Vaughan as yet another contributor to the Anglican patrimony that helped pave the way to Anglicanorum coetibus.

An ecumenical point of interest is the fact that the James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey, is Catholic and a papal knight. (He was awarded the papal honour of Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory in 1999.)

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