Category Archives: Church Music

My delight in church music and how I, a non-musician, became involved in it.

Being a Rev

M ost new jobs come with their big surprise – new arrivals find that they’re supposed to know about at least one quite unconnected activity; in the RAF, for example, I was a photographer yet I found myself, a  non-driver, driving everyhing from Jeeps to three-ton Dodge trucks. And I was amused and puzzled to hear a little while ago that a Vicar has to know about granite, and the difference between ‘Blue Pearl’ and ‘Arctic Blue’.

Little more than a handful of years ago I would cheerfully and confidently have said that the job of a Church of England vicar is to stand up in a pulpit every Sunday and address the people sitting in front of him on the teachings of Jesus Christ. And of course to conduct all weddings, funerals and christenings. And to be prepared to make the occasional visit to those in need of personal counsel. I admired the vicar of our own church for the diligent and approachable way in which he did those things.

But then the truth was revealed. A son of ours became one.

Every week we see a copy of his ‘to do’ diary, covering every activity in the two parishes for which he is Vicar. (Or, in his own case, Rector – fundamentally the same thing but with certain fine historical distinctions.)

He has one day off in a week. In the mornings, afternoons or evenings of the six working days he will be either leading or supervising events in both parishes. These will include the various informal church groups, those for the very young, the teenagers, the parents and the elderly people. Intertwined with all these there are organisational meetings for the discussion and confirming of church matters, generally and specifically.

People come to him – parents, single people, young couples, each one asking for advice or help in matters of all kinds.

And, yes, the services of wedding, funeral and christening, all of them being given the personal touch. Then come the Sunday services with the preparation of sermons, of talks for the children (these sometimes illustrated with his remarkably astute puppet called Bonzo who argues the toss with him – very popular) and the hymns and songs.

But in his own family he has the sort of practical support that makes all the difference: a wife who looks after correspondence and shares leadership in the events, and two brilliant children who willingly, during some of their free time, take on any jobs that come their way.

So what about Blue Pearl and Arctic Blue? They are two popular types of granite used for headstones. Headstones in churchyards are required to complement the surroundings, so Blue Pearl might be appropriate in one but Arctic Blue in another. And it’s the Vicar who has to know which one is which when an application lands on his desk. He will be held responsible for mistakes.

All of what I’ve written is about just one Rev’s activities. There may be other, different examples. I suppose you could have one who doesn’t bother about all these things but I doubt if that one would last for long. Unless there was a bullying young puppet to crack the whip, of course.

Christmas Donkeys

I’ve always liked donkeys. It probably began when my favourite aunt paid for me to ride on one on Ramsgate Sands back in the 1930s. So, when I was writing new Christmas carols a few years ago, donkeys presented themselves before me and insisted that I should write something about them. ‘After all’, they said, ‘we’re part of the Christmas story’.

I fell to imagining three of them in their retirement, standing happily together in a field somewhere, chatting about their memories. The oldest one said he remembered carrying a young woman up to Bethlehem. She was about to have a baby.

The second one nodded slowly. He said yes, he remembered carrying that baby when he’d grown to a 12-year-old boy. His name was Jesus. And the third, the youngest, said he could remember carrying that same boy Jesus after he’d grown to a man. Lots of crowds in Jerusalem, he said, all cheering him.

I wrote the carol especially for children’s choirs, with composer John Barnard setting the words to music. Listen to it now, while you read. NOTE:  The version below is the present one; the singers here had a slightly earlier version – a couple of words were changed but the meaning is the same.

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I dreamed that I saw three donkeys

I dreamed that I saw three donkeys 
	all resting by Galilee 
and telling me tales of Jesus Christ 
	who was born on the earth for me. 

‘I carried a girl called Mary 
	and heavy with child was she; 
I carried her up to Bethlehem 
	that a-mothering she could be.’

‘I carried the son of Mary, 
	he rode like a prince, did he;
we travelled the streets of Nazareth 
	and a carpenter’s boy was he.’

‘I carried the Lord of Mary 
	to shouts of a jubilee; 
I carried him to Jerusalem, 
	for the King of the Jews was he.’ 

I’m glad that I saw three donkeys 
	all resting by Galilee; 
they tell me that I must be like him 
	who was born on the earth for me.

Tune: THE THREE DONKEYS
Tom Cunningham

The Bells of St Mary’s

FromBarrowHillThose of you who are frequent readers of these pages will be familiar with the title. You can still read about – and hear – the bells in the St Mary’s website . The bells of St Mary’s Church in the village of Bitton, North Gloucester, are the sound I hear every Sunday morning as I walk along the lanes. From the main road, once the Roman road Via Julia, it’s almost impossible to hear more than the occasional snatch between the roaring and banging of traffic as it hurtles through on its way towards either Bath or Bristol. But in the early 1500s Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII, would have heard them loud and clear from her room nextdoor at The Grange, which still stands.

On Monday evenings, though, the bells get their own back. The traffic has dwindled by then and the ringers at their practice can be sure they’re heard from many miles around.

And if you think church bells are just like any other bells, get a big surprise here.

‘Johnny’ Dankworth

light of the world,

O ne morning in the early 1990s I answered our phone and heard a man’s voice say, ‘John Dankworth here’. Recently, BBC4 delighted us all in the jazz-lovers’ world with an hour’s celebration of his performances, from a 1958 film of the original Johnny Dankworth Seven playing Strayhorn’s Take the A Train through to a 2007 performance with his Big Band and Cleo Laine doing the 1939 Billy Holliday classic, Fine and Mellow. It was wonderful, and I have to thank our good friend Geoff Mackay for pointing out that it was going to happen.

In the ’60s I had revelled in the sound of ‘Johnny’ Dankworth’s Big Band rollicking out its smart, crackling jazz. Whenever he was going to be on the air I made quite sure I didn’t miss it. He was big.

And now, here he was, the man himself, actually speaking to me. When you’re old you can’t absorb these things quickly.

He asked if I would send him something for him to set to music. When it became clear that he was asking for something choral I was shaken. Dankworth and cathedral choirs? Surely not?

And what sort of theme, what sort of language, should I use? I had written for people like Archer, Barnard, Iliff, Kelly, Rose, Sumsion, all composers and arrangers of music for choir alone or choir and congregation – but Dankworth?

Anyway, I plunged, and over the following week or two I worked on a piece and sent it. Another few weeks and I was listening to it. The music, apart from a few lovely jazz chords, was so far removed from everything jazzy that it was difficult to believe that one composer could stretch to such extremes.

We eventually wrote three songs for choir. But one of them stood out from the others immediately. Our Light of the World was published in 1992 and 2000 by The Canterbury Press (Hymns Ancient & Modern) and Novello respectively. Tewkesbury Cathedral School Choir were the first to record it and it is included in their album Light of the World.

Everyone knew John Philip William Dankworth as ‘Johnny’, but as the Queen presented him with the CBE in 2006 he became Sir John. But ‘Sir’ or not, the ‘Johnny’ has persisted.

His death came on February 6, 2010, in the afternoon of the very day that ‘The Stables’ was marking its 40th year in a celebratory concert. This world-famous jazz centre in Milton Keynes was set up by John and Cleo not only for jazz concerts and festivals but also for the teaching of young people in the performance of, and enjoyment in, jazz. John’s wife, Cleo, decided that the concert should go on. She said she knew that John would have insisted that it should.

And, under Cleo Laine’s presentation and performance, the atmosphere that evening was of happiness and loving remembrance.

One well-remembered day in May 2005, John came for lunch and to talk about a future collaboration. To have this truly great man in our home was something we could never forget; time and again I kick myself for failing to set up a tape recorder to record the hilarious few minutes of extemporisation at our keyboard piano/organ.

However, it turned out that any further collaboration was out of the question; John’s and Cleo’s bookings in the US had to take precedence. One piece he was due to set, a children’s celebratory song for the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, was eventually set beautifully by Mark Nightingale.

Some weeks after John’s visit another composer friend called. We had told him of John’s fun with the keyboard and after the meal he stood looking down at the instrument in awe. Turning to Barbara and me he asked with, I think, tongue only very slightly in cheek,  if he might be allowed to sit on the ‘very same’ stool. He sat, and his eyes lifted to heaven.

‘And may I, you know, actually play something?’ he asked. To watch him playing was an entertainment in itself.

Herbert Sumsion, composer

In 1988, Dr Barry Rose, OBE, best known for conducting the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral at the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned me to write a suite of four hymns for setting by the great Herbert Sumsion, composer of church music and Gloucester Cathedral’s Organist and Master of the Choristers from 1928 to 1967. For years I had sung Sumsion anthems and services. He was on a par with Elgar and Vaughan Williams. My reaction at the thought of writing for him is indescribable – but ‘awe-struck’ comes to mind.

The next excitement came when he invited me to lunch to discuss the new work.

I was virtually levitating. For the next few days my wife and family probably found me insufferable. I dreamed about Sumsion at night and thought about little else in the daytime.

It so happened that I had already planned to stay with a friend who lived not far away from Rodborough Common, Sumsion’s Gloucestershire home, so I decided that the lunch date would fit perfectly at the end of that visit.

The day dawned. With a folder containing my first draft, but, essentially, without a map, I waved farewell to my friend and drove off to Rodborough Common, using the direct route. That is to say, down the lanes. Tracks, sometimes.

I arrived at Rodborough Common without difficulty. But this, I found, is merely a district, with the occasional single rooftop visible through the trees. The similarly occasional signposts pointed to other villages; the Sumsions must live along one of them. Or perhaps on the border between two but, for the convenience of the Post Office, given the name of one of its neighbours.

By the time I discovered the charming little house I was very late indeed. To the lady who opened the door to my knock I stumbled through apologies. With sweet pinkness of face, this gracious elderly couple actually apologised for having decided eventually to have their lunch and keep mine hot.

I was to learn two things about Herbert: first, to friends and family his name was John and had been since he was five; ‘Herbert’ was used exclusively by newcomers. The second: these were the first hymn tunes he had ever written. With my draft on the music stand he spent time at the piano, playing over a few ideas and asking what I thought of them. We discussed the theme I had conceived for the suite: Morning, Noon, Evening and Night. He nodded vigorously as he read them.

It is an encounter I shall never forget. Sadly, he never saw the publication of his work. They were published by Oecumuse but not until Autumn, 1995; he died the same year, on August 11.

So the little work was not only the first of its kind by Herbert Sumsion; it became, almost certainly, the last.