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The Devil’s Acre

You already know what it looks like – the soaring towers and imposing façade of Westminster Abbey. But do you know what it sounds like?

Westminster Abbey

Photo: Bernard Gagnon (Wikimedia Commons)

The cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

You already know what it looks like – the soaring towers and imposing façade of Westminster Abbey are practically visual shorthand for England. But do you know what it sounds like? From coronations to marriages to funerals, the church has been the backdrop for some of the most significant moments – and music – in British history. This hour on Harmonia, we’ll explore music in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, together with a featured release from – you guessed it – the Choir of Westminster Abbey.


Henry Purcell’s father, also called Henry, was appointed “a singing-man and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey” in 1661. His son, the better-known Henry Purcell, would later become the Abbey’s organist, penning sacred music for use at his post, yet unable to resist writing music of a decidedly non-religious bent. We heard an instrumental chaconne by Henry Purcell the second, performed by La Dispersione.


Of Kings and Queens

For most tourists who visit London, Westminster Abbey is one of their first stops. The site has played host to sixteen royal weddings, from the wedding of Henry I in 1100 to the wedding tweeted round the world – Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011. England’s kings and queens have been crowned there since 1066. And you can’t throw a souvenir tea towel without hitting the final resting place of a British luminary.

In short, there’s been plenty of drama at Westminster Abbey since the 600s, when a religious community began to meet on marshy Thorney Island, just off the north bank of the Thames.  And a good portion of the action has been accompanied by music.

Let’s go back, if not to the beginning, at least to within a thousand years of it, when the site was a haven for Benedictine monks. Clad in black habits, bound to celibacy and poverty, the monks filled their days with work, scholarship, and, during their multiple daily services, music.

It was for this community that King Edward the Confessor consecrated a new Abbey on Thorney Island in 1065. A year later, the Normans conquered England, bringing with them their own musical traditions. Among these was the Laudes Regiae, also known as “Christus Vincit,” a chant associated with kings and coronations that was performed at the crowning of William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda.

Let’s hear the Choir of Westminster Abbey perform that chant.

The Laudes Regiae, chant heard at the 11th-century coronation of William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda. We heard the Choir of Westminster Abbey.

Several centuries later, in the late 1500s, the organist and composer Edmund Hooper was appointed Master of the Choristers and Organist at Westminster Abbey – which by that time was not really an abbey at all anymore, but carried the rather distinctive title, “Royal Peculiar” – a special designation for a church that must answer directly to the King or Queen.

Hooper’s appointment in 1588 may have been the first time a single organist was appointed to play regularly. According to abbey records, he also enjoyed occasional work “mending the organs” and “picking new song-books.”

Let’s hear music by Edmund Hooper, “Alas that I offended,” sung by The Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Music by Edmund Hooper, appointed as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey in 1588. We heard The Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Since William the Conqueror was crowned there in 1066, Westminster Abbey has been the go-to site for royals looking to commemorate their ascent to the throne.

The composer George Frideric Handel was called upon to add grandeur to one such event in 1727, the coronation of George II. The anthem “Zadok the Priest,” one of four anthems Handel composed for the event, was so well-received that it has been sung at every coronation of a British King or Queen since.

Handel himself is buried at the abbey. A life-size sculpture, dating from 1662, was reportedly based on Handel’s death mask and features harp-playing angels, a collection of musical instruments, and an open score of “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth.”

Let’s hear the coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest,” performed by The Sixteen.

We heard The Sixteen, performing “Zadok the Priest,” a coronation anthem by George Frideric Handel that has been sung at every coronation of a British monarch since its first performance in 1727.


The Devil’s Acre

The poor, marshy area of London that sits in the shadow of Westminster Abbey eventually became known as “The Devil’s Acre.” By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was one of the most notorious slums in London, immortalized by the then-young literary crusader, Charles Dickens, who wrote:

“There is no part of the metropolis which presents a more checkered aspect, both physical and moral, than Westminster. The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribable infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey.”

It was into these low-lying streets that, in the mid-1600s, the composer Henry Purcell was born. From the start, his life was bound up with the abbey. His father, also called Henry, was Master of the Choristers there. Henry the son studied with Abbey organist John Blow, and, in the 1670s, received payment for tuning the organs and writing out organ parts. In 1679, John Blow stepped down as organist so that his former pupil could succeed him.

Despite his deep involvement with religious music making, Purcell also displayed a flair for less exalted art, composing fresh and startling music for, among other milieus, the theater.

Let’s hear two secular works by Henry Purcell, a Fantasia in 4 parts, no. 12, performed by Jordi Savall and friends, plus the famous rondeau from the play Abdelazer, “the Moor’s Revenge,” recorded by La Dispersione.

Two secular works by Henry Purcell, who was also intimately involved in the music making at Westminster Abbey. We heard the rondeau from Abdelazer performed by La Dispersione. And before that, we heard lush viol consort music: the Fantasia no. 12 in 4 parts, performed by Jordi Savall and friends.

Purcell’s appointment as abbey organist was not all smooth sailing – in 1689, he scrapped with the Dean and Chapter for charging money to admit spectators to the organ loft during the coronation of William and Mary.

Still, he retained his post until he end of his life, and was buried at the abbey with full ceremonial honors, near the organ, and in the presence of the choir.

Purcell died young, still in his thirties, and his teacher and friend, John Blow, had to return to the post, succeeding the man that he thought would be his successor. Blow commemorated his friend’s passing with music – what else? – publishing “An Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell.”

We’ll hear an excerpt from that ode, performed by harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and colleagues.

John Blow, giving voice to his grief on the death of his colleague, Henry Purcell.


Music by Robert White

We’re standing in the musical shadow of Westminster Abbey this hour on Harmonia as we hear music by composers whose musical lives were bound up with the imposing “Royal Peculiar.”

One of the ways in which Westminster Abbey was most influential in British musical life was as a training ground. In past centuries, many of its choristers, or boy sopranos, went on to pursue careers in music – and the tradition is ongoing.

Today, Westminster Abbey runs a choir school providing musical training and academic schooling for boy choristers who sing eight weekly services.

Let’s hear music from a Master of the Choristers from many centuries past, Robert White. We’ll hear his “Ad Te Levavi Oculos Meus.” The motet is performed by the ensemble Gallicantus, led by Gabriel Crouch. Crouch is currently a lecturer in the music department at Princeton, but he began his musical career at the age of eight, singing in the Westminster Abbey choir.

Music by Robert White, a 16th-century Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, performed by the ensemble Gallicantus, under the direction of former Westminster Abbey chorister Gabriel Crouch.


Music from the Choir of Westminster Abbey

For well over a millennium, Westminster Abbey has resounded with music, and the music shows no sign of stopping. Let’s sample a July 2016 release by the present-day Choir of Westminster Abbey, under the direction of James O’Donnell. We’ll hear music from the Missa Mater Christi sanctissima by the sixteenth-century composer John Taverner.

Music from the present-day Choir of Westminster Abbey, from a July 2016 release on the Hyperion label. We heard music by John Taverner, from his Missa Mater Christi sanctissima.


Break and theme music

:30, Attilio Ariosti: The Stockholm Sonatas, Vol. III, Emma Kirkby, Thomas Georgi, Lucas Harris, and Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann, BIS 2009, Tr. 19 Viola d’amore Sonata No. 19 in A Minor: IV. Rondeaux

:60, Telemann, Graupner, Vivaldi: Concerti d’amore, Bell’Arte Salzburg, Berlin Classics 2010, Tr. 2 Concerto in E Major, TWV 53:E1: II. Allegro 

:30, J. S. Bach / Cantatas BWV 22, 23, 127, 159, Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, harmonia mundi 2009, Tr. 9 Chorale: Christe, du Lamm Gottes

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Anne Timberlake.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Anne Timberlake

Anne Timberlake holds degrees in recorder performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Indiana University. She has received awards from the American Recorder Society and the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts, and, in 2008, was awarded a Fulbright Grant. With Musik Ekklesia, Anne has recorded for the Sono Luminus label, and she’s a founding member of the ensemble Wayward Sisters, specializing in music of the early baroque. Anne enjoys teaching as well as performing. In addition to music, she holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and covers the classical music beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia).

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