The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 9th July 2017 at 3:00 PM
As this afternoon we bid farewell to five boys who have played a significant part over the past five years in Westminster Abbey Choir and as we wish the returning Choristers and lay vicars a happy and refreshing summer holiday, Sir Hubert Parry’s setting of John Milton’s poem At a Solemn Music, sung as our anthem this afternoon, encourages us to reflect on the ministry of music in the life of the Abbey and of the Church more generally.
Milton describes Voice and Verse as a ‘blest pair of sirens.’ He takes an ancient image and turns it upside down. For the sirens in Greek mythology were by no means blest. Rather their fated task was to destroy ships, dragging them on to hazardous rocks by singing so beautifully that sailors were drawn to them and must sail towards them, ignoring the risks, unable to resist their fatal allure. ‘Siren voices’ has become in the modern world something of a cliché. Siren voices lead to destruction.
But Milton’s is a blest pair of sirens, leading not to destruction but to the glory of heaven. Voice and Verse he invites ‘to present to our high-raised fantasy that undisturbed song of pure consent, aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne of God.’ In other words, the voices of the singers and the words they sing are to combine, with the direct purpose of transporting the listener to heaven and enabling us to hear what God himself hears in the constant glorious worship offered him.
‘Where the bright seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel-trumpets blow,
And the cherubic host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,’
The purpose is that ‘we on earth may rightly answer that melodious noise.’ Our human weakness, our inadequacy, our failings, mean that we can never ourselves be worthy of heaven. Without God’s grace we are unable to transcend our fallibility. But the blest pair of sirens can and will lure us to heaven: will enable us to join our humble voices, perfected, to the melody of heaven.
Milton finishes with a prayer.
‘O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heaven, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.’
He prays, May we ourselves become part of the heavenly choir, ‘his celestial consort’, and live with God and sing his praise ‘in endless morn of light.’
So, if our minds and hearts are open to the moment, to the possibility of a transcendent experience, the poem and anthem itself lift us out of the mundane concerns of this life and of the world around us into the experience of heaven, into the presence of God, to join in the worship of the angels and archangels and of the whole company of heaven. Our heart sings Holy, Holy, Holy! even though our voice be silent. And for the chorister, the singer, whose voice is raised, the sense of the power and beauty and astonishing love of God, even though it may be a little obscured by the depth of concentration required to sing at this level, is surely the more intense.
Those of us who worship here day by day have the undoubted advantage of hearing one of the very best of the world’s church choirs singing some of the greatest music written over the past five hundred years to enhance the celebration of the Divine Office and the Eucharist. It is wonderful to know that music written for performance in the Abbey by Abbey organists such as Edmund Hooper or Orlando Gibbons or John Blow or Henry Purcell or even James Turle has never been out of the repertoire and is sung today better than ever.
We hear in the Abbey also from time to time masses by 20th century French composers now never performed liturgically in France. This is one disadvantage arising from the liturgical changes in our Churches over the past 50 years. One benefit though has been that the performance in the Abbey of the music of Palestrina and Victoria, Gesualdo and Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Josquin and Lassus can be in the language and context for which it was written, as can that of Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, whether their English or Latin music. And the great tradition of religious music is constantly renewed.
In a lecture for the Sandford St Martin Trust in 2008, broadcast by the BBC that year on 22nd October, the composer James MacMillan spoke of the divine spark in music. He said, ‘Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music, and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modernity's mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief, and practice at work in composers' minds. This truth’ he said, ‘is a great encouragement to a composer like me who has drawn inspiration from the deep reservoirs of Christian liturgy and theology.’
He went on to criticise the ignorance and arrogance of a purely secular approach to music. ‘It is imperative to the secular project that our Christian heritage must be seen through an objective separation, in which the object can be appraised without ever having to consider the historic, philosophical, or religious ingredients that shaped it. This allows the cultural élites to bury our religious heritage in the earth of history, while robbing its grave of all its beautiful artefacts.’
But he was also clear that the religious instinct and purpose in composing and performing great music is alive and well. He concluded, ‘We must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. I believe it is God's divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.’
The Choristers who are leaving, as those who are staying, and our adult musicians, are animated by that divine spark. We pray for them that it will always be so.
Ned, Luca, Xavier, Orlando and George, your contribution to the worship here at the Abbey has helped innumerable people gain a glimpse of heaven and share in the worship of heaven. You finish your service as a Chorister with our thanks and our blessing. You will remain part of the Abbey and the Abbey will always be part of you.
Life is full of moments like this, partings and changes, moments of transition. But they all lead us towards that decisive moment when we shall leave this earthly life and find ourselves transported to heaven. We cannot deserve that joy and glory; it is only by God’s grace and through his great love for us that the promise of heaven will be fulfilled for each of us. That day will come, one day. Our whole life is to be a preparation for the journey to heaven and is punctuated by those glad and glorious moments when we have here on earth a foretaste of heaven.
Be sure not to lose for yourselves what you have given to others. Stay close to almighty God, who loves you, and he will bring you to himself.
In the second lesson a few minutes ago, we heard the blind man say to Jesus, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Most of us see well enough physically. But we see only part of the reality around us. One day by God’s grace we shall see perfectly: we shall see God face to face.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.