The 2017 Music Celebration Day was held at Hungerford United Reformed Church on 21 October. And what a celebration it was! We sang a Bach cantata, no less: but more of that later.
Hungerford itself is a pleasant market town in Berkshire and the United Reformed Church there occupies a distinctive position in the High Street. It was exactly the right size for the attendance so that all the participants had room to move around and to sing.
The Revd John Sturney, who lives in retirement in nearby Wantage, led our opening worship at which we heard the lesson from 2 Chronicles 5 which told of the consecration of the new temple with the Levites standing near the east side of the altar with cymbals and harps and 120 priests playing trumpets. The singers were accompanied in perfect harmony by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments as they praised the Lord. We didn’t quite manage music on such a scale, but we did our best to sing in harmony.
Our best was achieved thanks to the expert tuition of Ann Wright. Ann is Director of Education for the VCM Foundation, one of the world’s leading vocal music education charities. She is also a choral director and a trained soprano. After three quarters of an hour’s warming up exercises from Ann we were ready for anything. So we embarked on J.S.Bach’s Cantata 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness). Like most of Bach’s church cantatas, it starts with an extended setting of the first verse of the hymn on which it is based, the sopranos singing the tune while the other three parts support it with elaborate counterpoint. A number of recitatives and arias follow, in which the soul is encouraged to prepare for her encounter with the Saviour, and the final movement is a straightforward setting of the final verse of the hymn (“straightforward” as any Bach harmonisation is: Bach’s chorale settings are anything but straightforward, but it is not anything like as elaborate as the opening movement).
We started with the final movement, therefore, and learnt to follow each other’s parts in the wonderful counterpoint. Then we started on the first movement, which was far more ambitious. Half-way through this movement we broke up for lunch.
After lunch the Annual General Meeting was held: a full account of that will appear elsewhere.
It was now time for the Revd David Bunney to give a presentation about music in the Reformation. Although the Reformation is often taken to date from Martin Luther’s nailing 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittemburg, that event is very dubitable historically, and in fact many events which took place previously prefigured the Lutheran reformation.
Tragedy now struck. Just before our afternoon music rehearsal was scheduled to start the electric supply failed and so the organ was unusable. The rehearsal went ahead with piano accompaniment, and unfortunately the piano needed some attention. Nevertheless it was a sunny day and there was plenty of light, so the rehearsal went ahead with the expert Anthony Cairns at the piano.
But everybody’s wish was answered when the electric supply was restored in time for our closing act of worship conducted by the Chairman of URC Music, the Revd Margaret Taylor. Yes, as an anthem we sang Cantata 180, accompanied by the tiny 5-stop organ. The second movement of the cantata is a tenor solo and had to be omitted but there was a recitative and arioso as well as an aria, beautifully sung by Ann and recitatives for alto and bass sung by Sheila Warner and David Bunney respectively. The final hymn was “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness” and the voluntary Buxrtehude’s Fugue in C (BuxWV 140).
And so we went away with a cantata and an organ fugue in our hearts. What more could we want?