‘Soul of the Age’: Powerful Sounds and Feelings

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Our readers, Anton Lesser and Janet Suzman, had been rehearsing all afternoon with the programme devisor, Ronnie Mulryne for ‘Soul of the Age’: A Celebration of 800 Years of Holy Trinity Church.

The programme took us through eight centuries of faith and doubt from the early Medieval period (Noah’s fractious wife from the Wakefield Mystery Cycle, the Wife of Bath’s five husbands, and a deluded, rather pathetic Margery Kempe), the Reformation (‘spiritual turmoil, spiritual peace’), the Victorians (‘honest doubters and firm believers’), the twentieth century (‘The House of God: Endgame or Prelude?), and the church today.

Lesser and Suzman brought characteristic wit and intelligence to all of their readings, which crackled beautifully when the two were in dialogue. How good it was to hear a burst of King Lear from Lesser:

‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.’ (The Tragedy of King Lear, 3. 4.).

Suzman herself took on the roles of Kent, Edgar, and the Fool. And, shortly afterwards, Lesser read Macbeth’s great annihilation of time:

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’ (Macbeth, 5. 4.).

Shakespeare’s own sense of spirituality seemed dark, uncompromising, and challenging. Lesser’s own reading of some of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets invoked all of their beautiful contortions – finely but aggressively chiselled. After turmoil came peace as George Herbert’s ‘Virtue’ was read by Suzman with limpid simplicity. The two then shared Herbert’s great sonnet ‘Love (III)’, which sounded the most disarming I’ve ever known it in their particular rendition. Later, the two of them shared Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, and Suzman served up Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung rhythms with a joyous freshness.

The programme was augmented with two choirs, as well as the resounding church organ. The church choir contributions included the opening anthem, especially composed for the 800th anniversary by the church’s Director of Music, Andrew Jones. This started with the choir in three different parts of the church. First we heard Latin plain-chant and then gradually we moved into modern harmonies, as the choir joined up into a single expression of the Trinity: the three parts became one. Contributions from the choir of King Edward VI’s School included Gardiner’s great ‘Evening Hymn.’ The Bishop Exeter, Rt Rev. Michael Langrish, himself a former curate of the church, presided over the occasion and read a fine and moving poem he himself had composed, ‘In a stone casket: Exeter Cathedral.’

The event was stirred by sunlight, intermittently breaking through the great west window. There was a sense of journey, not only through the centuries, but through the kinds of sounds, both musical and poetic, that people, quite similar to ourselves, would have heard and known. School student, Henry Edwards, read some of the Vulgate, ‘Latin is very good for the mind’, he told me. I immediately thought of Shakespeare’s own passion for the Roman poet Ovid.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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