Echoes of the 12th century resonated from the walls of the church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, on 5th August, the Eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration. This was ‘a memorable, indeed unique, happening at St Mary’s,’ as one of the participants put it. Indeed, it was probably the first time vespers has been sung at St Mary’s in 450 years.
The afternoon’s exploration of music from the Middle Ages was directed by Dr Matthew Ward, a highly regarded musician and music historian whose musical mentor was Dr Meg Bent, of this parish. He set the scene for nearly a hundred of us to listen to and take part in music that may have been heard in our church during its first decades. His opening lecture included live performances from members of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge showcasing music from that period. Some of it, he told us, may not have been heard anywhere since the Middle Ages.
Learning to sing this kind of music was tricky but Matthew took no prisoners. He challenged us to cope with the Latin, figure out the musical notes, remember which bits to sing and which not to, and almost convinced us that we could do it with just one hour’s coaching. We may not have got it all right but we won’t forget his encouragement. ‘Think of a comet,’ he said. ‘Try to make sure you are part of its head rather than trailing behind as dust!’
Then came the culmination of our hard work, singing vespers itself. Cups of tea and mountains of cakes fortified us and into the church we went to be greeted with… silence. The first tingling difference was the absence of organ music before the service began. The celebrant (Father Richard Conrad from Blackfriars), his assistant priests (our own Andrew McKearney, Michael Bourdeaux and Bill Beaver), the four cantors from the Schola Gregoriana and three servers swinging incense processed through the church, magnificently clad in copes. Again, unforgettably, in silence. Between these silences the music soared.
It is hard to describe the experience of this pre-Reformation act of worship. We learned about a whole new world. ‘This has profoundly deepened my understanding of the role of music in the 12th century church,’ another participant said. ‘I found the music and the Vespers utterly beautiful – like coming home, and completely in keeping with all that St Mary’s stands for.’ The beautiful booklet Matthew created helped us to follow the lecture, the plainchant workshop and the service of Vespers. It will, quite soon, be joined as a treasured memento of the day by a short video clip of the workshop that will take its place on the website at http://iffleychurch.org.uk/category/living-stones/
This afternoon of ethereal glory, learning and enjoying at the same time, could not have happened without the generosity of the Bishopsdown Trust, our indefatigable team of Living Stones volunteers, our ever-curious and lively-minded village community, and the significant number of people who came from far afield to contribute their skills, their goodwill and their desire to capture something of the 12th century essence of our awe-inspiring church.