Handwasher’s Newsletter 8th November 2020


Dear Friends,

I must confess that when I wrote my first column for the CCS newsletter way back in March I never imagined I would be contributing something in November at the beginning of a second lockdown. Whatever your thoughts on the pandemic (or politics!) I think we can safely say that 2020 is a year that we will all remember…

(Tewkesbury Abbey Choir, pre social-distancing, featuring both Mr and Mrs Etherington. Ed.)

Several of you have enquired about my musical activities at the Abbey (Tewkesbury) over the past few months. As you know, all churches were closed during the first lockdown but many re-opened early in July when public worship was allowed to resume.

One of the main questions from musicians was, ‘When can our choirs start singing again?’ All churches have taken a different approach to this, with responsibility being given to local incumbents. Some places were quick off the mark whilst others were quite late to the party!

Tewkesbury has rather fallen into the second category for a variety of reasons, none of which I will bore you with here. It is interesting to note, however, that whilst Hugo Kennard at Cirencester Parish Church was back playing the organ for services at the beginning of July, I didn’t resume any playing duties until late September. (Well done Cirencester!) Once the appropriate risk assessments were written and approved, the Abbey Choir was allowed to resume singing at the Sunday morning service. We’ve managed to do four weeks!

During rehearsals I’ve also take the opportunity to record various musical items for the pre-recorded services which the Abbey has been producing throughout this period. Last Monday we recorded (at less than 24 hours notice!) some musical items to cover the next four weeks of these virtual, online services. Hopefully, ‘live’ singing will resume again in time for Christmas…

None of this, sadly, is likely to be of much comfort to members of CCS, or any other large choir. Believe me, I really miss our regular Tuesday rehearsals, the exploration of wonderful music week by week and the expectation of concert day. There is no way of knowing when we will resume some sense of normality in this respect – I really do wish that I could wave a magic wand!

One thing musicians have been forced to embrace over the past months is technology.

One of the highlights of this last term for me was to take my first online chorister rehearsal. To see the children’s bright faces’ (see what I did there?!) after six months was an utter delight. It also got them singing again, which was even better!

With this in mind, I would very much like to involve CCS in some online musical activity over the coming weeks and months ahead. Although I know that many of you are probably naturally reluctant to want to venture down this unknown path, I would sincerely encourage you to give it a go. It would be a great way of keeping in touch, keeping the vocal cords in trim and making some music together which is, of course, what CCS is all about. More about that anon!

In the meantime, as we are approaching this time of Remembrance, here is a recording of Parry’s glorious ‘My soul, there is a country’ from his Songs of Farewell. Many of you will remember that we performed this in our Parry and Stanford concert a few years ago.

Enjoy! https://youtu.be/F9AacmOZp3g


I became interested in this subject from reading this little book kindly loaned by a couple of Crooks in which the author retraces Bach’s footsteps:

In 1705, aged 20, Johann Sebastian Bach was employed as organist in Arnstadt’s Neuekirche (subsequently renamed Bachkirche). Always ambitious to learn, he realised that he was probably the most accomplished musician in town so had scant opportunity to learn from others.

Bach’s statue as a laid back young man in Arnstadt

During the late 17th century and early 18th centuries Dietrich Buxtehuder, organist at St Mary’s Church, Lübeck, was renowned throughout Germany as the top man in his profession. As organist at Marienkirche in Lübeck, he held one of the most coveted musical positions in the land. What’s more, due to the culturally liberal atmosphere of Lübeck – at that time a free imperial city that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy – Buxtehude was afforded a number of freedoms that courtly composers were not. He travelled, taught and had time to develop his skills as a keyboard virtuoso, in addition to his official duties as town organist.

Dietrich Buxtehuder (c. 1637/39 – 1707)

(CCS sang two works by Buxtehude under Evelyn Webb in 1975 and 1976 respectively:

Magnificat: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=buxtehude+magnificat&app=desktop

and Jesu, Joy and Treasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCm4juLKby0 )

Bach decided he had to visit him, in his own words, “to comprehend one thing and another about his art”. He managed to persuade his superiors to allow him four week’s leave and set out on 18th October 1705 to walk the 250 miles to Lübeck leaving his assistant to hold the fort. Assuming that he anticipated, say, at least a week learning from Buxtehude, he would need to average 25 miles each day to be back in Arnstadt by the due date of 15th November. It was common for the less well-off to walk long distances in those days and Bach was in his physical prime. His most direct route was to follow the medieval Salt Route directly from Arnstadt to his destination along which there were settlements and inns . . . but this crossed the Hartz Mountains. Winter was coming and it was the era of severe European winters when ice fairs were held on the tidal Thames. This was to be no stroll in the park!

We don’t know how long the journeys there and back took but, in the event, Bach spent three months in Lübeck. He so impressed the aging Buxtehude that he offered Bach his job on condition that he married his daughter aged 30. Bach, like Handel and others before him, turned down this dubious offer and left for home arriving back in Arnstadt in early February complete with a bag full of Buxtehude manuscripts . . . but not Fraulein Buxtehude.

Bach’s superiors were less than delighted, particularly as his ‘month’s leave’ had extended over Christmas. Worse, to their ears, his organ playing was transformed and there were complaints that Bach “played many curious variations, and mixed in many strange tones, so that the congregation became confused”. Altogether, these differences most certainly played a part in Bach’s decision to apply, successfully, soon after to become the successor of the renowned organist Johann Georg Able in Mühlhausen.

The Wender organ at Arnstadt for which Bach probably composed the Toccata and Fugue in D minor played here by Karl Richter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkQrj-eEs-M

Unlike his sons, Bach never left his native Germany but he was willing to learn from other great musicians at home and abroad and become familiar with their works. By combining that knowledge with his own innate genius, he created those superb works which we are privileged to perform and to hear so here’s a familiar piece by Bach sung by Voces8:


and the Ascension Oratorio (CCS in 2014) performed by John Elliot Gardner et al:


and a familiar figure climbing a mountain – not the Hartz but his heart’s in it: https://business.facebook.com/cheltcoffeeconcerts/videos/1044946632589146/UzpfSTc3MDkwOTI4MzA1MzE2ODoyMDY3MjQyMzUzNDE5ODQ4/


Brian Kay has published a book of musical memories in which he defines a real musical aficionado as: ‘A man who hears a beautiful woman singing in the bath and puts his ear to the keyhole.’ (The chance would be a fine thing! Ed.)

and we couldn’t let the occasion pass without sharing this from Sonia and Ginny: