Music, Theology and the Chapel – Dr Susan Gillingham

We have had a wonderful year of chapel music. So, as we approach the end of this academic year, it seems appropriate to say something about the relationship between music, faith and worship. In part this is a way of thanking the choir – and the chaplain – for all they have given those of us who come to sit, listen and pray. In part it is to help us all reflect more on how music evokes a faith in quite a different way from any exhortation dependent upon the abundance of words.

So I start tonight with a visual aid: this is our alabaster candlestick which serves as a lectern, quoted by one art critic as representing an upside-down melted candle. I wonder how many of you have ever looked closely at it. This was a gift from the scholars of the college in 1865: you can see it in the writing on the base: ‘D.D. Scholares Coll. Vigor.n. A.D. MDCCCLXV’. The silver-bound lecterns on each side were also a gift – in this case, from one Charles Henry Olive Daniel, a great supporter of Burges and a Fellow of the College who was later to become Provost. The candlestick was finally placed in its present position when the work on the mosaic pavement had been completed: you can see the way it neatly separates the twelve saints of the English church from the four earlier saints of the Western church. Once situated where we have it now, it has become all but immoveable; it was taken aside when the refurbishment of the chapel took place in 2002, but other than then I have never seen it other than approximately halfway between the two pillars at the West End and the two pillars at the East end. For some, it interrupts the aesthetic sweep from the narthex up to the chancel; and for others, it is a real practical nuisance when it comes to liturgical processions and dramatic and musical performances. But it does imitate rather well the two axes of the chapel: the vertical axis is represented not only by the pillars, but also by the downward sequence of the seven scrolls and seven windows, with the fourteen frescos on each side and the seven friezes underneath; whereas the horizontal axis is represented by the words of the two canticles, one running right around the cornice and the other around the back of the benches. The candlestick has been placed more or less at the very centre of this axis right under the dome. It echoes our cross-shaped faith, pointing us to the crucifixion window at the East end.

But I wonder how many of you have really looked at this in detail. William Burges, the chapel’s architect, left us his sketch of it, in silhouette form, and it is now in the College Library. Burges had eclectic tastes, and one of them was for Renaissance Art and Architecture. He had entered competitions for designs for a church in Florence, for example, and the designs for the candlestick were undoubtedly influenced by that Quattrocento style of fourteenth century Florence – a style which in turn imitated Greek and Roman classical forms. If any of you have ever been to the Duomo in Florence, you might have seen in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo a work by Luca della Robia, dating from 1428-31, entitled ‘Cantoria’: it was built as one of two marble ‘organ pulpits’ over the two sacristy doors in the Duomo (the other was designed later by Donatello). ‘Cantoria’ comprises ten reliefs of children playing, singing and dancing Psalm 150, set on three different levels. When we were in Florence, I found these different cameos, taken as a piece, incredibly moving, for they suggested the unconstrained, jubilant nature of children’s praise, which to my mind is a most apt way of depicting Psalm 150, with all its calls to praise God with trumpet, lute and harp, with tambourine, dance, strings and pipe, with clashing symbols and with one’s voice. The choir’s earlier rendition of Psalm 150, to that familiar setting by Stanford, with the trebles more than playing their part, did full justice to this psalm.

If you look closely at our candlestick you will see that around the upper base we have a group of eleven youths – I’ve no idea where the twelfth singer has disappeared! – who are perhaps a little older than the children in Luca della Robia’s work, and older too than our choirboy trebles, but not much – and they are singing diligently from six different books. Perhaps it does not have quite the vibrancy and joyful spontaneity of of the 15c. Florentine work, but it has undoubtedly been influenced by Luca della Robia. The sculptor responsible for transforming Burges’s sketches into reality was Thomas Nicholls. Nicholls – who had worked with Burges on previous projects – was responsible for the three different sculptural projects in the chapel – firstly, the animals, in walnut wood, on top of the bench ends; secondly, the four statues of the Gospel writers, inlaid with gilt, in each of the four niches in the corners of the chapel; and, third, this candlestick, carved from alabaster. The statues of the four Gospels produced the most controversy, because some of the Fellows thought they were too close to what they saw as the idolatrous practices in the Roman and High Anglican Churches growing around Oxford in the 1860s, encouraging devotion to images.

The carvings and candlestick were not controversial, and you can see the way each project has been integrated into the heart of the chapel. For example, look at the cornice of the chapel: you will see, in twelve sections, that morning canticle called the Benedicite, which calls on all creation to give praise to God – the light and darkness, the green things of earth, the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, the mountains and hills. In the carvings of the animals all around you Nicholls has focused particularly on the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air which, implicitly, are giving their own praise to God their Creator. Now look, if you can, at the backs of the pews against the chapel wall: there you will find, rather more hidden, the other morning canticle, the Te Deum,. which is split up so that one word runs into another. This is a call to the angels and saints in heaven above to join with the choir and saints on earth below in praise of God: ‘We praise Thee O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord; to thee all angels… continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts’ . Just as Nichols carved out the animals to illustrate more of the Benedicite, so too he carved out this alabaster candlestick-lectern, in Florentine Quattrocento style, to echo the Te Deum. So it is not of Psalm 150; and although marble has worn somewhat thin to give any indication on their song books, our library sources tell us that this anthem is, as appropriate for our chapel, the Te Deum.

Worcester Chapel is by far the most visual and sensory chapel in Oxford. Every available space has been taken up with highly symbolic drawings, covering the walls by way of frescos, windows, murals, and using every available inch of the ceiling and the floor. But Burges and Nichols – and Henry Holiday, who was responsible for the windows – did not intend this to be a chapel where the praise of God is only encountered visually. As well as the two canticles, and as well as our singers on this candle, there are several other instances where Burges points us to how we can encounter God not only by what we see but by what we hear. Look first at the frieze on the north side, immediately to my right – there you see the heavenly host of angels making music to God – Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, and the Choir of Eight. (It was pointed out to me recently by Matthew Salisbury that one of these angels is holding a book with exactly the same psalm chant on it as the chant running across the organ bench.) This frieze conveys to us the music of the heavenly host, of which not only the Te Deum but also the Benedicite speaks: if you look up you will see the writing above this frieze which reads “Oh ye angels of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever”. This fits with the sculpting of four angels at the base of the candlestick joining the choir of eleven in the ‘Te Deum’. So heavenly praise intermingles with earthly praise and raises it back to heaven. Earthly praise is of course important: look now at the gold-plated frieze further down the chapel, and you should see David, the founder of Hebrew psalmody, playing on his harp, along with Solomon his son, the founder of the Temple, carrying a model of it in a typical Medieval pose. Then at the other side of the chapel look at the frieze just along from the Provost’s stall, which is of the martyrs of the Christian Church, where you can see St. Cecelia of Rome, the founder of Christian music, with her pipes, here with St. Catherine of Alexandria (and her wheel). And then, on the floor, you see in the mosaics St. Wilfrid, holding his psalms scroll.

So despite its intense visual impact, we also have a chapel which is about hearing as well as seeing the praise of God. Furthermore, we are reminded that we in what has been called a ‘Temple masking a Church’, where, like the Temple of Solomon, heavenly mysteries are made incarnate on earth and earthly realities are transformed by a vista of heaven.

I deliberately chose tonight’s readings with this idea of earthly praise and heavenly praise in mind. Our Old Testament lesson told us about the celebrations after the completion of the Temple of Solomon. Here we read that the celebrations focussed not on sacrifice but on processional songs. We read how the Levitical Singers took their cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets ‘and other musical instruments’ and sang praises to the Lord, using a song found in many psalms, especially 118 and 136: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”. After they had sung, the mystery of the glory of God filled the Temple. So music preceded sacrifice, and it was the praise to God in music and song which apparently drew the presence of God into the midst of the sanctuary. This is a typical example of how the gift of music attunes human hearts to the hear and see the glory of God.

Our New Testament lesson spoke of earthly praise and heavenly praise in a reverse way. The setting for this reading was of a heavenly Temple, and the assembled company included the twenty-four elders, each holding a harp, singing a new song of praise to the Lamb of God: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”. The praise of these heavenly saints was augmented by the praises of many angels, singing “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” At this point the praise in heaven moved down to earth, with the whole company in heaven and earth singing “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”. This is what John in Revelation both sees and hears: here the gift of music from angelic voices attunes those on earth to hear and see the glory of God.

I started by saying that I wanted to speak about the music of the chapel, and I have tried to show how music is to be found in the chapel already, even before the choir adds their own voices to it. I also said I wanted to reflect on how music gives rise to faith, often surpassing what words can do. I realise now this latter aim is really a contradiction in terms: how can I use mere words to describe music and faith when I am saying music and faith transcend them? This is the point at which I think music and theology, my own subject, are really about the same things. The score of music, like the text of Scripture, is a prism to help us encounter the divine, but it only comes to life when we move beyond the notations of the musical score (or beyond the words of a scriptural text) into some sort of performance. The score on its own, and the text alone, need to be brought to life. Music has the capacity to offer to us ‘a little incarnation’ as we perceive through a performance the presence of God within us and beyond us. T.S. Eliot once said that poetry was ‘a raid on the inarticulate’.

I think this also applies to music as well. So- ‘thanks be to God’ for those who have sung so wonderfully throughout this year, not least for their ‘raid on the inarticulate’ which has lifted our hearts to God and also brought God down to us.

Dr. Susan Gillingham, Reader in Theology, Tutor and Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford
6th June 2010

About the author