Yesterday a colleague sent me the video of our choir singing Parry’s (1848-1918) ‘My Soul there is a Country’ with the Sistine Chapel Choir in front of Michaelangelo’s vast and terrifying Last Judgement.
Parry’s anthem is one of the Songs of Farewell, composed in the final years of his life and tried out in draft form in New College chapel over several years. Parry, poignantly, did not live to hear the Songs performed together; they were first sung as a cycle by members of New College choir and others at a memorial for the composer in Exeter College Chapel in 1919.
I had the immense, almost unbelievable privilege of being at that concert in the Sistine Chapel in 2015, but did not know there was a recording, so clicking on the link was a little like tasting Proust’s madeleine, as I was immersed in the memory of a time so extraordinary that it had seemed unreal.
I was reminded of it this morning as we read Psalm 126 in morning prayer:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter
and our tongue with songs of joy.
Our brief visit to the Vatican was hardly a release from Babylonian captivity, but it is a time when we were like those who dream, swept up in the strangeness of it all, from the early morning open-air rehearsal in one of the vast, forbidding renaissance courtyards, organised not for the novelty but because no one had thought to book a large enough rehearsal space; to waiting around in one of the transepts of St Peter’s as the cleaners literally vacuumed under our feet, in the hopes that the Holy Father would grant us a brief audience when he had finished saying the Angelus to the crowds in the square. The boys, still in their robes, played games, and read, and dozed; some of the adults, up since dawn, took the opportunity for a rest. We all got warmer and warmer on a hot June day, and wondered if we were really there.
For his text, Parry chose a poem by Henry Vaughan (1621-95) that offers an enticing view of heaven ‘above noise and danger’, governed by ‘one, who never changes’. For Parry, this was a meditation on what might await him at his time of farewell. But for Vaughan it was, as for the writer of Psalm 126, not only a vision of a gentle end, but a hope in a future after strife. Vaughan wrote the poem after he retired to the country, in royalist exile, after the execution of Charles I. He called it ‘Peace’, and its vision of heaven seems to offer hope for the here and now as well as for the hereafter.
We are all trying, at the moment, to sustain ourselves on dreamlike visions of the simple pleasures of hugging our loved ones and a drink in the pub, or coming together to make music, whether humble or exalted. But Vaughan challenges us to think what it might mean to ‘Leave then thy foolish ranges’ and find peace in the here and now.
My Soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
All skillful in the wars,
There above noise and danger
Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,
And one born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
And (O my Soul awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake,
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flow’r of peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease;
Leave then thy foolish ranges;
For none can thee secure,
But one, who never changes,
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.