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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, January 24, 2004
    This Church
     


    The composer Michael Finnissy has come up with something very special in This Church. In preparation for the 900th anniversary of St Mary de Haura (New Shoreham) in 2003 parishioner Finnissy spent two years researching its history, interacting with local people, composing and preparing a piece of music to celebrate the occasion.

    "Saint Mary de Haura (is) a town-centre church on the coast of Sussex. The church, not merely the building but the evolving community around it, is - I think - typical of countless others across the whole of England. Its story, although specific, seems also to exemplify the history of Christianity in this country from Norman times to the present...", wrote Finnissy. With solo voices, church choir, handbell ringers and The Ixion Ensemble, Finnissy's work unwinds music and texts from the twelfth century to the present day. It's a no-holds barred exploration of what the church - This Church - has meant to people throughout the centuries.

    So we hear monastic voices, secular compositions, the agents of both the Reformation and Civil War; accounts of the great storm of 1703, the genesis of a church school, and a vicar being accused of misdemeanours. John Wesley's crisis of faith features, as do the ruminations of nineteenth-century archeologists, poets and missionaries. Twenthieth-century voices begin with disquieting wartime questions about God's will and mankind's future, and end with present parishioners and visitors to the church telling us of their responses to it: I've reproduced their words above.

    It's a measure of the quality of the work that I first read about it in the seriously secular leftfield music monthly The Wire. Their reviewer Ben Watson admits, "Perhaps the atheist cannot quite credit the gorgeous communitarian crescendo of the finale, but we're touched nonetheless", and continues:

    "Finnissy's avant garde integrity gave the lie to the musical compromises of the post modernist 1980s. Now This Church shows how, in attempting to borrow the heady perfumes of liturgy without embracing a particular congregation Jan Garbarek and John Tavener and Gavin Bryars gave us a phoney high. This music has grit and invention and documents a genuine situation: a cutting reproach to the glibness and ingratiation which seem to be the inevitable condiment to commerce."

    [More reviews here]