Monday, September 11, 2017

Walpole St Peter, Norfolk

It does something to me

A regular reader of the English Buildings blog, or someone glancing at the tag cloud in the right-hand column, would realise quickly that churches are a major interest of mine. I visit churches a lot, and I seem to blog about a church at least once a month. Many things draw me to churches – sometimes it’s their long history, sometimes their architecture, sometimes specific objects or works of art they contain, sometimes what I can only call their atmosphere.

The atmosphere I most eagerly savour is the kind that is summoned up by centuries of accumulated history. It’s what I find, typically, in small isolated country churches that have not been over-restored – churches like Inglesham in Wiltshire, to give just one favourite example. There’s something else I get from churches like that, and it’s signalled perhaps by the world ‘isolated’. In a world that contains, in my opinion, far too much noise, a church can be an almost silent place. I find quietude helpful, even restorative, and value the combination of quiet and atmosphere* found in some old churches enough make a special journey to find it.

But there’s another thing that sometimes happens in churches that is the opposite of silence, and can be equally nourishing: the sudden unexpected performance of music. I have been surprised by music in churches quite a few times, and it has always made my visit memorable. This is not, or not usually, run of the mill organ practice – though I have been captivated by that too (one organ piece I heard, in Gloucester cathedral, stayed in my head for years before I discovered what it was). What I mean is rehearsals for special musical events. From time to time I have come across a trio playing Mendelssohn, a choir singing Handel, a bizarre duet for organ and violin, a Schubert impromptu on the piano, and an unidentified baroque cantata – all of these in old churches. All have given me pleasure, in part because these ad hoc performances have been a total surprise.

It’s not just about church acoustics, which can vary quite a bit. In one of our more beautiful cathedrals I can remember a choral rehearsal in which it took me a few minutes to grasp the fact that the words the choir were singing were English ones – the reverberation was playing havoc with the singers’ diction. After a while the conductor dropped her arms in despair, bringing everyone to a halt, and wailed desperately,’I need to hear the altos!’ Often, though, church acoustics are crystal clear. The setting, conducive to worship, is also likely to be apt for the kind of attention that good, unamplified music demands. And in a small church one can get very close to the performers, lending great immediacy to the proceedings.

At Walpole St Peter in Norfolk, the church offers many of the things I most enjoy – airy, late-medieval architecture with repeating patterns of window tracery, impressive woodwork including screens and pews with carved poppyheads and other details, clear glass that lets the sun bathe the interior with light and warmth. But it was music that was in my mind even before I walked past the notice reminding me to remove the pattens from my feet¶ and pushed open the door. I have a recording of a fine Bach concert by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner that was made in this glorious 15th-century church. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if someone’s playing Bach in here. Imagine my surprise as I opened the door to hear not ‘Wachet auf’ or ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ but a woman singing Cole Porter. There followed a long selection from the American songbook, most of it beautifully sung, a rehearsal for a concert later the same day. The person minding the singers was quite happy for me to wander around, so I tiptoed quietly, admiring the window tracery and the woodwork, and savouring the way the sunlight coming through the clear glass windows illuminated pews and carvings, to the accompaniment of ‘Night and Day’, ‘You’re the Top’, and ‘You Do Something to Me’.

And the whole experience did do something to me, and I was very grateful. I did not resent losing a few minutes’ silence for some good music-making. Music and silence, apparent opposites, are not so far apart after all. There have been whole books written about silence, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read about the subject is the shortest and most laconic, the exhortation of Alfred Brendel, master interpreter of the Viennese piano classics† and revelatory writer about music. He told us simply to remember the anagram: LISTEN = SILENT.§

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* Compare Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’: ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here’.

¶ A notice left over from the 19th century, at least: ‘It is requested that all persons will take off their Pattens at the Church Door’.

† Now retired from the concert platform, but his recordings remain.

§ Alfred Brendel, A Pianist’s A – Z (Faber & Faber, 2013)


bazza said...

You were a little closer to Heaven in that church in more ways than one Philip. How fabulous to hear that singing!
I love some of the names of English towns. Walpole St Peter - you couldn't make it up. When I travel on the continent (frequently) I love to explore cathedrals and one of my friends is a former organ restorer so usually finds some extra interest.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s aberrant Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

Your Norfolk church may not be a huge cathedral, but you are right about late-medieval architecture with beautiful window tracery. I understand perfectly well why medieval churches adored stained glass, but the clear glass allowed the interior to fill with light and warmth. And British churches surely needed light and warmth.

per apse said...

Clearly that visit was something very special - to a church I know well. But isn't there a special atmosphere there anyway? A huge church - a religious space - large enough to have secret areas and, for want of a better word, 'vistas'. I love Inglesham (like Parracombe too) small, intimate and bearing the marks of time, but Walpole St Peter has something neither has - grand presence - built for the glory of God. PS Bazza might add Terrington St Clement (nearly next door to Walpole St P. and at least as huge) to his list of village names! Thank you once again for your blog. To have heard Cole Porter there must have been heavenly - and had Marian Montgomery been the artist .......

Philip Wilkinson said...

per apse: Yes. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that Walpole St Peter is a sizeable church with grand vistas, made impressive by the repeated rhythms of the window tracery and the arches of the arcade. Most of these architectural features have great unity (the whole thing seems to have been built in one go, perhaps with the exception of the slightly earlier tower), so a unity of style makes the vistas still more effective.

Peter Ashley said...

Walpole St.Peter was used in the television adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers 'The Nine Tailors'. It may have been her inspiration too.

Also on film, Norwich Cathedral was used very effectively in 'The Go Between' when Leo Colston wanders in. I've always been very impressed that the choir he hears in the background is practising.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ah, yes. I'd forgotten that there was a choir practising in The Go Between. I've not seen the adaptation of The Nine Tailors. Dorothy L Sayers might well have known the churches in this part of Norfolk. She grew up in a village not far from Huntingdon, which is a bit south of here but not that far, and as her father was a vicar and she had an interest in medieval history it's not unreasonable to think of her knowing the church at Walpole St Peter.

Joe Treasure said...

A really wonderful post, Phil. Thank you.