The centre of spiritual life for the University of Oxford for centuries, the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is the sort of place where you can walk in and feel both at peace with oneself and in communion with the history that has taken place there. It is a remarkable space. The tower affords some of the best views of Oxford. (I have not yet gone up the tower, but I will on a clear day, after which I will update this post and the attached gallery.)
Unique in the world insofar as it is both a collegiate chapel and a diocesan cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral is certainly one of the must see-sights in Oxford. I only wish that one could say the same of hearing it. Although the choir is quite solid under Dr. Stephen Darlington, and the organ (1978 Rieger) is charming, the acoustic and the layout of the space make it an auditory nightmare. It is as though the space was designed to serve both of its functions, but each in its traditional form. The nave is essentially a self-contained, hall-style collegiate chapel. The choir stalls are just beneath the organ, with the precentor’s desk behind them. The daily offices are, in fact, led from the west end. This is perfectly sensible in itself. But the Eucharist is celebrated at the east end (where it belongs). Although in its proper place, the choir and organ are now substantially separated. The chancel, for reasons unknown, is actually longer than the nave, making the space supremely awkward as worshipers torn back and forth from left to right in order to face whatever is happening at the time. The pulpit only complicates matters as it faces northeast diagonally across the crossing in the direction of the chancel. The lectern, a modern movable piece of furniture, is perched dead center in the aisle at the top of the chancel steps.
I also must lament the use of Common Worship in place of the Book of Common Prayer for the celebration of the Eucharist. For a cathedral church, it is simply not appropriate. The contemporary language is awkward, and it is totally lost against the backdrop of the Latin mass settings sung by the choir. In short, this space is well worth seeing, but I would suggest attending either matins or evensong rather than one of the Eucharist services.
For those who haven’t figured it out already, my faith is pretty central to my life. I have a lot of things to thank for that, but these days the key is my parish. I have been actively involved at Church of the Incarnation (Episcopal) in Dallas, TX for almost two years now, and I serve as a volunteer in the choir and as a chalice bearer. The latter doesn’t leave me much to talk about, so I’ll stick with the former for the purposes of this post.
I have had the distinct pleasure of singing under two different choirmasters. I started almost concurrently with the interim choirmaster, Dr. Richard Sparks (click here for his blog). Dr. Sparks is the Chair of Conducting and Ensembles at the University of North Texas. His distinctive academic style was just what I needed to get me started in the Anglican choral tradition, with which I was unfamiliar. After working with Dr. Sparks for the entire academic year, I returned home for the summer, after which I returned to Dallas to find a new Organist/Choirmaster in his place. The auditions for the position had occurred before my return home, so I was greatly looking forward to meeting his successor.
Lo and behold, Scott Dettra! Incarnation was lucky enough to snatch him away from the Washington National Cathedral. Having received his most recent degree from the renowned Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, Scott took off with an ambitious performance schedule. It has been exhausting, but very fulfilling to work with Scott. His background in Anglican music has opened a whole new world of possibilities for the choir, and his skills as an organist are top notch.
I think that the best way in which to share this integral part of my life with you is to sit back and allow the music to speak for itself. Below you will find several recordings made of the choir. Except for the final one, these are not my recordings, and I claim no right to them. They are all, however, shared publicly already. The full recording of the requiem mass can be found on the church’s website (see my links page) under “Media” -> “Special Audio.” Happy listening!
“Locus Iste” – Anton Bruckner
“Salvator Mundi” – Thomas Tallis
Introit from Officium Defunctorum (Requiem) – Tomás Luis de Victoria
“Ave Maria” – Robert Parsons
Hymn: “Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling” (Grafton)
Whilst in Oxford, it appears I will have the pleasure of worshiping in this glorious space (among many others). Construction was begun on the chapel in 1639, but it was not until 20 March 1666 that is was finally dedicated, thanks in large part to the English Civil War. Surprisingly the chapel had no organ until 1863. The current instrument by Walker dates to 1955. Sadly, the organ is not used nearly as often as its cousins in the other collegiate chapels of Oxford as the chapel only plays host to one sung service per week. Nonetheless, this will be my first stop on my tour of sacred spaces in Oxford.