Tag Archives: Philip Larkin

Music for beautiful buildings


A church-going Christian would be used to the practice of ensemble singing alongside prayer and contemplation, but exactly how and when the idea of religious practice blended into artistic appreciation?

Possibly from my earliest TV Christmas carol concerts, and certainly enhanced by discovering Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on midweek afternoons some time in the 1990s. Although that programme broadcasts all year round, it seems particularly suited to the dusky and dark afternoons of autumn and winter, possibly because of the format’s similarity to the Christmas Eve broadcast of lessons and carols at King’s College Cambridge.



The chapel of King’s College Cambridge.


I would agree with Tom Service that the musical pleasures of choral evensong are inevitably associated with the medieval churches and cathedrals which still retain professionally-led choirs able to perform it.  If you love to visit a historic Christian church it’s surely easy to listen to some of the music which has been designed to be sung within it.



The medieval choir stalls at Chester Cathedral.



Sainte Chapelle in Paris.


My most memorable personal experience of attending a religious service involving such a choir was at Mass in the Gothic style (but Victorian built) St Mary’s Catholic cathedral in Sydney, Australia. The music included William Byrd, as I remember.



St Mary’s Cathedral, photographed from a conveniently high vantage in 2000, probably from the AMP Centrepoint complex. The adjoining 19th building century building, contrasting with other larger and newer ones, is the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Yes, perhaps such music is an old-fashioned taste even for a church-goer, the sort mocked by Philip Larkin in Church Going After all, it is now more often specially planned and performed for secular audiences,  for example at the Three Choirs Festival , rather than as natural parts of the religious life of a community.

I confess to preferring plainchant and polyphony and contemporary composition (which usually requires the skills of professional singers)  rather than hymns from the 19th and early 20th centuries where a choir sings in hearty unison to organ accompaniment just as they might do in your local parish. Probably a bit of snobbery, that. Whichever, you have the strong sense that this is a form of cultural expression which, as the 21st century progresses, will become more rare and select.



The medieval chapel in Iona Abbey.




Somewhere bright and Baroque in Venice, probably the Church of Santa Maria della Salute.



One of the older churches in Jerusalem, St Anne’s near the Pool of Bethesda, built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.



The startling interior of the Church of the Transfiguration, designed in the 1920s by Antonio Barluzzi, on Mount Tabor in Israel.


The website Saturday Chorale  contains a huge treasure trove from all periods and there are extracts of the excellent BBC series Sacred Music with performances by The Sixteen on You Tube.


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Trains and changing landscapes


Once, I heard the music broadcaster Peter Easton talk on his BBC Radio Scotland programme The Beat Patrol about the then new rap act Public Enemy.  “If you think you don’t like rap, listen to Public Enemy. If you don’t like them, just leave it, because Public Enemy are as good as rap gets.”

I stole the formula once in talking about Philip Larkin. “If you don’t like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ ”, I said smart-aleckly,   “that might mean that you don’t like Philip Larkin, because ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is as good as Larkin gets.”

Although I didn’t read Larkin in school, my first acquaintance of him was in an anthology which was designed as a school text book,   Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George MacBeth ( London :  Longman/Faber 1967).  MacBeth described “The Whitsun Weddings” as “one of the major poems written since 1945” and he convinced me. Its tight structure is similar to many other of Larkin’s most famous poems like “Church Going” or “Reasons for Attendance” or “Aubade”, but it also has a great narrative with a pulsing energy, resonant of the train movement it describes. I still love how Larkin combines the story of the wedding parties with the detailed description of the changing landscape and his personal reflection, in language which is both formal and carefully controlled but still feels idiomatic and conversational.  I first read it before my first rail journeys south from Scotland towards and into London, and at least part of those experiences  were shaped by “The Whitsun Weddings”.

Of course it is a pre-1978 poem. That was when the current May public holidays, on the first Monday and last Monday of the month, came into force, replacing the Whitsun bank holiday.  Whitsun was a term more commonly used in England for the Christian festival which I knew as Pentecost. So the poignancy of the poem’s title for me derives, in addition to its alliteration, from this expression of both a specific English landscape and a now distant past.

“The Whitsun Weddings” makes an interesting diptych with this other famous poem.  While Larkin’s train journeys from north to south during the day and during a holiday, Auden’s train travels from south to north, overnight, doing its job.


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