Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Gustav Holst: The Coming of Christ –another contemporary review

Another review of this superb ‘discovery’ by the English Music Festival and their CD division. This time from the New York Times.  The recording can be bought direct from EM Records. I have given a few notes at the end of the review. 

Canterbury, England May 28. 
The mystery play [1]– that medieval theatrical convention whereby the Church once tried to explain to the unlettered laity the teachings of the Bible and the ritual – was revived today in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. Three of England’s foremost artists in the fields of poetry, music and stagecraft collaborated to produce a drama which is adaptable to any church which wishes to add colour or beauty to its forms of worship. 

John Masefield wrote the play about the Nativity, and gave it the simple title ‘The Coming of Christ.’ Gustav Holst, composer, whose ‘The Planets’ was played in the last New York musical season [2], wrote the organ, pianoforte and trumpet accompaniments. In his music, combined perhaps with Masefield’s words or others, there is one tune which is a real addition to English hymnology. Charles Ricketts, [3] designer of operatic settings, recently elected member of the Royal Academy, designed the costumes. For the setting there was the cathedral itself, unadorned and impressive

Three thousand persons crowded two performances today and 3,000 more have taken tickets for tomorrow. In today’s audiences were many celebrities of the London theatre and arts worlds, including Bernard Shaw, but most onlookers were humble townsmen and townswomen [4] of Canterbury, many of whose kinfolk collaborated with the authors either in sewing costumes, making properties or helping in the choruses. 

The play, while given without intervals and consuming only and hour and twenty minutes, naturally falls into four episodes. There were only fourteen characters, including one which the British play censors forbids on the London stage. Anima Christi [5], Masefield labels the character, but clad in white robes and wearing a jewelled crown, it appears as that of the living Christ. 

The play opens after the trumpeters’ fanfare, with four angels, The Power, The Sword, The Mercy, The Light, trying to dissuade the Anima Christi from entering man’s form and enduring the suffering they see with prophetic eyes. Anima Christi is resolute. He converses with the spirits of Paul and Peter, coming followers through whom he is confident he can overcome the world. 
‘Pass onward into life, O resolute soul!’ bids one angel then, and a heavenly host appears to sing him on his way. 
Three Kings [Magi], Baltasar, Melchior and Gaspar, appear, escorted by medieval knights:   Baltasar, a warlord, Gaspar, a ruler of commerce and Melchior a leader of science – each conscious of failure unless he can find the King. 

Then there is the scene of three shepherds talking by night on a snowy hillside, and in the lines Masefield gave two of them he and the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Rev. K. A. Bell, [6] encountered outspoken Tory criticism before the play was put on. The two shepherds talked ‘radical propaganda the gospel of discontent’ [7] according to the critics and ought not to be allowed to say such things in a cathedral. ‘What would you have had them talk – foot and mouth disease?’ Masefield snapped back at his critics. The Dean of Canterbury soothed the alarmed conservatives, pointing out that the eldest and wisest of the shepherds rebuked the radicals even to the extent of knocking their heads together in the good old British fashion, and that all three knelt together at last before the manger. 
The final scene is the adoration of the Madonna and Child by the kings and shepherds. 
‘It is the first time a mystery play ever was given in Canterbury Cathedral, though often given in near-by buildings in the middle ages.’ The Dean said. ‘We hope to give others. I look upon mystery plays as a chance to recapture the arts for the service of the church, a chance to offer the gifts of poetry, music, beauty, colour and design, singing and acting, the arts and crafts to worship. Today as well as many centuries ago, mystery plays may present great religious truths to man’s imagination and senses as well as his mind. 
New York Times May 29 1928 [with minor edits]

[1] Mystery Plays date from the Middle Ages. They usually represented a biblical subject such as Adam and Eve or Noah and the Ark. The language was the vernacular. The Mystery Plays were originally held in churches, but eventually secular locations were used. The texts were often interpolated with ‘apocryphal and satirical’ elements. The plays were later organised into series or cycles, with the best known being the Chester, the York and the the Wakefield Plays. They had by and large disappeared by the beginning of the seventeenth century. 
[2] The Planets were first performed in the United States on 29 Dec 1921 simultaneously (nearly) in both Chicago and New York.
[3] Charles De Soussy Rickets, R.A. 1866-1931. Ricketts was an illustrator, a book designer, a publisher, a painter, a sculptor, a stage designer, an author, an art critic, an art advisor, and an art collector. He was truly a polymath.
[4] This part of the review does seem a little patronising to the ‘good folk’ of Canterbury. However, I guess that his meaning is clear. It was not just the great and the good and the professional who contributed to the success of the work. 
[5] Anima Christi – literally Soul of Christ. It was forbidden at that time to represent Christ on the stage.
[6] George Kennedy Allen Bell (1883 1958) was an Anglican theologian, Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of House of Lords and a pioneer of the Ecumenical Movement. He was a man of extraordinary vision, giving his support in 1943 to the pioneering notion of a World Council of Religions that would support the then League of Nations, and unify the world's spiritual traditions around a common set of values. Elected the first moderator of the World Council of Church's Central Committee in 1948, he also served as a President of the WCC from 1954 until his death. During World War II, he placed his own career at risk by condemning the saturation bombing of Germany. He was a strong supporter of the anti-Hitler Confessing Church in Germany, and gave asylum to Jewish and other refugees. Many speculate that he forfeited the Archbishopric of Canterbury for his forthright, but politically unpopular, views on saturation bombing, yet this left him free to walk on the world stage through his leadership within the World Council of Churches. He can properly be considered one of the founders of the ecumenical movement. A man of courage, he did not hesitate to disagree with the prevailing political opinion of his day. (New World Encyclopedia)
[7] It is interesting to see that like today the church had to deal with attacks on its ‘political’ theology and social concerns. One thinks of Gustav Holst’s good friend Conrad Noel, The Red Vicar of Thaxted who flew the Red Flag in his church.

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