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.



Cantatas in their proper place at St.Paul’s Lutheran


Cantata BWV 47 “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden”

Rebecca Woodmore (soprano) / Jenny Potter (alto) / John Beaglehole (tenor)

Timothy Hurd (bass)

Richard Apperley (director)

Ensemble Abendmusik (leader: Martin Jaenecke)

St.Paul’s Lutheran Church,

King St., Mt.Cook, Wellington

Saturday 29th September, 2012

In presenting performances of JS Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original liturgical settings, Wellington’s St.Paul’s Lutheran Church is unique in New Zealand. The church is part of a network of world-wide Lutheran worship offering this same ministry, including the composer’s own St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

This practice was established at St.Paul’s in 2007 by Mark Whitfield,  President of the Lutheran Church in New Zealand, and Pastor at St.Paul’s in Wellington since 2001.  Prior to this he had taken up a scholarship to complete a Master of Sacred Music Degree at Luther Seminary and St.Olaf College, Minnesota, where he majored in organ (his skill on the instrument evident at various times during the service in which this cantata was presented).

Collaborating in this ongoing enterprise are well-known choral conductor and organ recitalist Richard Apperley, and a group of singers and instrumentalists who perform under the name of Ensemble Abendmusik – the group’s personnel varies from occasion to occasion, depending upon the performers’ availability and according to the requirements of each cantata. This is the second such performance I’ve attended, and the singers and some of the musicians were different on each occasion.

The church itself is smallish, and has a chamber organ, though its vaulted ceiling does give the sounds of the music some resonating-space.  The first time I attended one of these services the day outside was gloomy and grey, and something of the oppressive atmosphere seemed to colour the proceedings – however, my recent experience had a completely different ambience, everything warm and glowing  from the late afternoon sunbeams which had found their way inside the space, so that I felt a kind of sacramental ‘illuminating from within” this time round.

The service in each case “framed” the cantata performance, choral singing preceded by chorale preludes played on the organ, and liturgical prayers, responses and chanting, and followed by some preaching, readings from the Bible and prayer and singing. The congregation was asked not to “applaud” the music presentations during the course of the service, keeping the focus throughout on the overall service and its various acts of worship, of which the cantata performance was an integral part.

When it came to the cantata, following the Epistle and Gospel readings and a congregational “Magnificat” composed by a sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, the music seemed to flow from the performers as part of a continuum, rather than resemble something brought in for the occasion. The work was BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (Whoever exalts himself will be abased) – and its instrumental opening brought forth playing whose sweet tones and simple, direct focus seemed to draw both strength and beauty from its purpose as much as its intrinsic value. The quartet of soloists, though varying in strength and projection of voices, made the most of the opening fugal chorus, with only a slight uncertainty of attack at the harmonic lurch into the movement’s coda.

The soprano soloist, Rebecca Woodmore, I liked very much indeed – her aria featured strong, direct vocalizing, and graceful handling of the long lines. Martin Jaenecke’s solo violin obbligato supported her truly almost all the way, perhaps tiring a little during the reprise after the aria’s central, more agitated section, where the intonation was less consistent. During this vigorous middle section, the soprano caught the sense of anger and agitation in her singing, even if some of the figurations were blurred at speed – still, the energy and bite made a telling contrast with the aria’s outer sections.

Bass Timothy Hurd relished the juicy admonitions of his recitative text, with references to “Du, armer Wurm”, giving the delivery proper force and colour. His aria, Jesu, beuge douche mien Herz (Jesus, bow down my heart) was a bit more effortful, the voice having to be pushed through the lines, with breath occasionally an issue – though he managed to inflect the text tellingly in places, while keeping his tones true and focused. I wished we had heard a little more of the alto and tenor as well, but the work had no “solos” for either of them.

Instrumental lines (Jane Young’s ‘cello work a particular delight) nicely augmented the work of soloists and chorus, the final chorale a case in point, which here received a properly dignified rendition – one had a real sense of Bach’s work as music that contributed to a community’s expression of spiritual strength and determination. At the end of the service we were able to express our appreciation of the performers, which also included the auspices of the church and its ministers. The result of all of these people’s efforts seemed to me something eminently rich and worthwhile.