R.S.Thomas – a centenary remembered in poetry, scripture and music

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul presents:
Choral Evensong marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Priest-Poet R. S. Thomas

Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,
Director of Music: Michael Stewart
Sermon: Rev. Dr. Tim McKenzie

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

29th September 2013

R. S. Thomas was a 20th Century Anglican Priest-Poet who died in the year 2000 after 40 years in the priesthood. He was a passionate Welsh nationalist, and a pacifist active in the C20th Nuclear Disarmament movement. Throughout his life he expressed his  spiritual explorations in poetry whose highly abstract language would sound unfamiliar to most young ears today. Over his ministry he moved progressively further and further from urban centres to ever more rural environments which doubtless nurtured his deeply contemplative writing. A revealing snapshot of the man and his life can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/29/rs-thomas-poetry-religion.

Some of his poetry is, however, fresh and unambiguous, such as The Bright Field which was selected for the Introit at this Evensong service. Exquisitely set to music by former Kings Singer Bob Chilcott, the choral idioms were perfectly suited to the Wellington Cathedral, with the sound floating free and un-muddied by the acoustics. This is a startling feat, given the reverberation times typical of such churches, but then Chilcott was Kings College trained in the long traditions of English church choirs and the huge spaces they often sing in. The Cathedral choir did full justice to the beauty of both music and words:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The following Evensong service observed the traditional format with the theme being set by the First Lesson read in the King James version from Isaiah 45:1-8 – the godhead is hidden and entirely beyond human reach or comprehension. Traditional Welsh hymns were selected in keeping with the R. S. Thomas theme: God, that madest earth and heaven (Ar hyd y nos), Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio), and Guide me, O thou great Redeemer (Cwm Rhondda). These were all conveyed to full breadth and effect with the support of the cathedral choir and acoustics, despite an only modest congregation.

Both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were Leighton settings which were realised by choir and organist very much in the European cathedral tradition –a wide dynamic range was used to full dramatic effect, from the blast of triple forte to breathless hushed pianissimo, expressing the whole gamut from divine majesty to mystery in the godhead imagery. The acoustics of the cathedral ruled out any possibility of clear diction, but this too is very much in the European tradition of creating an atmosphere of awe and devotion through the powerful medium of the music.

The second lesson from John 6: 63-69 was read in a modern translation which seemed a less appropriate choice than the King James within the context of this particular Evensong; but the Anthem, composed by Director of Music Michael Stewart, was a very effective setting of R. S. Thomas’s haunting poem “The Other”, which was beautifully rendered by the musicians:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without
and companionless. And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

 The service closed with Vaughan Williams’ organ voluntary on the Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol.  This concluded an Evensong which offered a very interesting and rounded insight into R. S. Thomas, not only through an apposite selection of music and verse, but also through the obvious commitment from both musicians and preacher to conveying a meaningful understanding of the man and his works.



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