Pentecost 2017

The sermon by Director of Music, Dr David Price, on Sunday, 4th June for Pentecost.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was studying in London, a visitor arriving at Trinity College of Music would be taken on a tour of the music practice rooms. From the small cubicles you could hear strains of a variety of instruments, from organ, to cello, to voice, performing on a variety of musical genres, from opera, to classical to choral music. To a few it was an assault on the senses, but for most it was an insight into the creative life of an eclectic bunch of aspiring professional musicians.

From first thing in the morning until 10 at night, students would be playing their hearts out. We may have disliked each other’s taste in music, or looked down our noses on brass and viola players, but we all wanted to be the best we could be. We had, as Canon Nick wrote in today’s highlights, fire in our bellies.

There is much about the story of Pentecost than resonates with music though ……it was possible that some of my fellow students were both practising and still slightly drunk from the night before!  We all spoke in our own musical languages but there was something that connected us all:

The creative gift of music and our appreciation of how music can challenge and change people. 

And we all had fire in our bellies.

Some of my favourite music is that of Pentecost. Oliver will play Durufle’s Chorale and Variations on Veni Creator to conclude tonight’s service.

These, as the title suggest are a set of variations on the ancient plainsong hymn Veni Creator  — come, creator, invoking the Holy Spirit through music and ends in exuberant toccata.

It is in fact, the final movement of a longer work presenting the Gregorian melody in its entirety, both in added human voices and in Durufle’s music. Traditional sacred music practice in France usually combines singing with solo organ. Much of the body of extant eighteenth and nineteenth century French organ music consists of sets of “versets” intended to be played in alternation with sung text.

Although the score does not indicate the singing of the chant, Durufle’s own recording of this movement included it Durufle arranged the vocal and instrumental sections in this order: Theme; first verse of the chant; Variation I; second verse of the chant; Variation II; third verse of the chant; Variation III; seventh verse and Amen of the chant; then Variation IV. The addition of chanting reminds the hearer that the purpose of the composition is to draw attention to the Pentecost story, and it serves as well to balance the piece structurally. The chant verse leading to the final variation glorifies the Trinity thereby pointing us towards the next great Feast, and the escalation of the intensity of the musical elements underscores the spiritual elevation intended.

Lay Clerk Dr Pepin and I have annual discussions about why there are not enough Durufle variations to match the seven hymn verses. Well last week I stumbled upon what may be the answer – an eminent Doctor of Music conjectures that he did in fact write enough, but that he threw away three variations. Something the perfectionist composer was wont to do. As an aside we are lucky that Durufle had a gifted and intuitive DUSTMAN – who rescued many other manuscripts from the Durufles’ bin!

The Holy Spirit has the creative power to sustain and change.  The Estonian revolution against decades of Soviet occupation is known as the singing revolution because it started at a music concert or SongFest where the crowd sang Estonian national songs in the faces of their Soviet overlords and Russian military — who were powerless to retaliate.

One of the most moving things about choir tours abroad is singing a familiar hymn in another language. ‘Puha, Puha, Puha’, was our refrain in Estonia as we sang their version of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’; or the plainsong Missa de Angelis we sang with the choir at Chambery Cathedral in France. We know we are singing about shared beliefs. Music unites.

During The Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell banned organ music because he and fellow puritans considered it to be the sound of the devil!! I’m sure none of you here would agree!

Perhaps the Holy Spirit wasn’t moving Cromwell in his treatment of Cathedral musicians, though he obviously did have a soft spot for his home town of Ely; locking the cathedral West doors himself and holding the keys in his own office. In my book, having worked at that glorious cathedral prior to coming here, he is, at least partially redeemed.

In our reading from Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying that at the instigation of the Holy Spirit the young shall see visions and the old men shall dream dreams. I can attest, The Holy Spirit has power to change and refresh – change occurred for me when I met my wife to be at the Pentecost 24 hour youth vigil here in 1997.

And when I was a naive music student I saw various futures ahead of myself.  I achieved my goal of becoming a cathedral organist, but that didn’t put a stop to my visions of music. Each time I work on the music list, every service, every concert and every recital requires a vision. 21 years after arriving at Portsmouth I still have fire in my belly. And I hope the music and liturgy rendered here helps bring the fire of the Holy Spirit to both young and old Christians who find themselves journeying with Christ in this place.