Handwashers’ Newsletter 7th June 2020

A huge ‘thank you’ to those who have sent in contributions. We now have too many to include immediately but they are all safely tucked away and will appear in due course.


This week we return to Gloucestershire with music by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). Gurney was born in Gloucester  where he was a cathedral chorister.

 Like Herbert Howells, he became an articled pupil of the cathedral organist, Herbert Brewer, before studying at the Royal College of Music in London. Stanford believed Gurney to be the most talented of all his many pupils, although he also stated that he was ‘unteachable!’ Interestingly, both Gurney and Howells are buried at Twigworth, a few miles from Gloucester.

Although Gurney is chiefly remembered as a poet and composer of songs (he wrote over 300), the piece I am sharing with you is his Gloucestershire Rhapsody, written between 1919 and 1921. It is a musical portrayal of Gurney’s beloved native landscape and his most important orchestral composition. Incredibly, this fine work did not receive its first performance until 2010 – 73 years after the composer’s death! This belated premiere was given in Cheltenham Town Hall as part of the Three Choirs’ Festival. I hope you enjoy it. https://youtu.be/RYmQdOhySq8


We regret to announce that Penelope, who sang alto with us for many years, died on 14th May. Thank you, Jane Read, for bringing this sad news to our notice.


Before coming to Cirencester, I lived in Usk, Monmouthshire, and was a member of Monmouth Choral Society. (MCS) Whilst I was there Mark Foster was the conductor. He was well known in the Gloucestershire area and until 1999 also conducted the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – even though he lived in South Wales near Brecon.  He retired from MCS in 2005 and died in 2007 aged 84. The choir was then conducted by Benjamin Nicholas (who also conducted Stroud Choral Society). 

I remember when we were performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Cheltenham Town Hall with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra there was a most beautiful peacock butterfly flying around and at one of the very energetic points in the choral section it landed on Mark’s’ head. How the choir carried on I am not sure, but he knew it was there and there was nothing he could do about it!!!!

SAINT HILDEGARD OF BINGEN Di Welch wrote in recently:

‘I came across her life and works recently, by chance. She was born in 1098 in Germany and became a Benedictine Abbess. She was also a composer, philosopher, artist, Christian mystic, healer, visionary and polymath. She died at the amazing age (for the time) of 81. She must have been quite a lady!’

Often cited as the first named composer, this remarkable woman merits investigation:

According to custom, as the 10th child of a noble family, little Hildegard, aged 8, was sent to the isolated hilltop monastery of Disibodenberg. There she spent nearly 40 years with a handful of other women, each enclosed in a small stone cell away from the monks. A single window linked them to the outside world and they had one meagre meal a day in winter and two in summer. They prayed at regular intervals throughout the day and night and were instructed in the Psalter, Latin and strict religious practices.

In 1136, Hildegard became Abbess and she started writing music for her nuns to sing as part of the Divine Office. She had grown up hearing the chants of the Roman mass and she set her own vibrant, colourful verses to music to create antiphons, responses, sequences and hymns.

Christopher Page (no relation), expert on Hildegard’s music, writes:

“We don’t know if Hildegard is sitting and humming the songs, or if she’s perhaps humming and writing them down on a white tablet, with a final version then being written by someone else on slate or parchment. We don’t know if the words come first, or if the words and the music grow together in an organic development. We don’t know how much hand in it her male helpers – male secretaries and priests – had.”

Her music consists of just one melodic line (monophonic). She uses soaring melodies, contrasting with the more-staid ranges of traditional Gregorian chant, perhaps reflecting the vocal range of her nuns compared with that of monks. Scholars also note the intimate relationship between music and text in Hildegard’s compositions.

None of Hildegard’s settings of the liturgy survive but one of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, is arguably the oldest surviving morality play. Here are Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NGTsdL2YzE

We are even less qualified to describe Hildegard’s considerable non-musical achievements mentioned by Di but you can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen


Vic did at Bristol Choral under the direction of Adrian Partington who ventured to persuade the choir to sing the whole of Messiah from memory. This took about 4 years to perfect. As we performed Messiah each Christmas so another section from memory was added.

When we finally got to perform the whole work from memory, the soloists asked to dress in original costume of the age which they did.  The performance was mesmeric as the soloists and choir connected directly with the audience. The soloists also connected directly with the choir in particular the passage where the choir sing “He trusted in God” and the Tenor turned to the choir and replied, “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”. It was quite an emotional response.


Jane Read waxes poetic about shopping on-line and the inducements to buy those things you never wanted:

You may also like …

 You may also like to buy a pickled lime

To sharpen up your taste buds at this time.

Or how about a splendid piece of meat

Or something calorific for a sweet?

You could be bold and risk a food that’s new

Or shove the tired veggies in a stew.

You’ll search in vain for yeast and flour and beanz

And whistle for the vanished tangerines.

No pasta, rice nor any decent cheese

No tissues for our noses if we sneeze.

Will you be tempted by the very thought

Of special offers, BOGOFs or of port?

Is this the time to tempt my better half

With something new – a dish of boiled giraffe?

All this and more I’d snap up in a jot

If only I could book a bloody slot.