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How Bach lifted my spirits at my mother's funeral

Choosing the music for my mother’s funeral was an honour as well as a duty and I had to get it right

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

I was at a funeral the other day at which the music was so inspiring that I struggled to feel sad. That’s fair enough, you may think — but the person in the coffin was my own mother.

This is a difficult point to explain in cold print, but there are reasons why I wasn’t grief-stricken at the death of the person who meant most to me in the world.

My mother Pamela loved my sister and me with a passion; she radiated holiness, but in an unobtrusively English way.

She was also a very private person, sometimes driven to distraction by her attention-seeking son. She never sought — and never received — any official recognition of her decades of service to the Catholic Church. Well into her eighties, she spent day after day taking the Blessed Sacrament (and her joyful smile) to Catholics lying seriously ill in hospital. Later, one of those patients was able to perform the same service for her.

Alas, in her last years my mother suffered enormously. I won’t go into detail, but the nature of her illness meant that I did most of my grieving while she was still alive. Therefore planning the music for her funeral wasn’t as upsetting as it might have been.

But it was an honour as well as a duty and I had to get it right. Catholic music is often excruciating — I call it ‘Joan Baez meets Hildegard of Bingen in a 1970s cocktail lounge’. At funerals this is toned down a bit, but if there’s one thing worse than cod-folk ‘worship songs’ it’s a traditional hymn with an organist who vamps his way through the accompaniment. If that had happened, I’d have lost all my self-control and probably flung myself on the coffin like a Sicilian widow.


Fortunately, my mother’s parish church in Caversham, Reading, got its act together musically back in the 1980s. A lady called Patty Naxton recruited a proper choir from the ranks of parishioners. At Midnight Mass they would sing a four-part Bach chorale; the first time I heard them I nearly fell out of my pew in surprise.

The organists were good, too, but the piece I wanted (‘It’s all about you,’ I can hear my mother sighing) is a challenge even for a professional: Bach’s ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Fugue, so called because the fugue subject is coincidentally the same as the first line of ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’, the tune known as ‘St Anne’. And my mother’s parish is Our Lady and St Anne’s. We could have the Prelude at the beginning of the service and the Fugue at the end; it’s actually what Bach intended.

However, you can’t import organists without asking the parish priest, and I’d never met Mgr Patrick Daly, who arrived at St Anne’s after my mother left for her nursing home three years ago. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘Feel free to bring Simon Preston, or Ton Koopman.’ His own preferred Bach organist, he added, was the late Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, widow of the composer. (Catch her on YouTube and you’ll hear why Fr Patrick rates her so highly.)

This I wasn’t expecting. Few parish priests outside London are music anoraks — but then not many were interpreters for the European Union, as Fr Patrick was before his ordination, and later general secretary of the European bishops’ conference. We didn’t mention Brexit, sticking to the safer topic of his great passion, the piano music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

That left me free to hire Edward Tambling, whose magnificent ‘St Anne’ I’d heard at the wedding of my friend Will Heaven.

And everything fell into place. The music director Clare Gough led the choir in the Missa pro Defunctis — hauntingly spare, unlike the only plainchant most Catholics ever hear, the schmaltz-encrusted Missa de Angelis. Patty Naxton was the soloist in the Psalm. ‘I wanted to sing for Pamela one last time,’ she said afterwards.

She did so beautifully — but I have a bee in my bonnet about the Gelineau psalm settings used by St Anne’s and countless Catholic parishes, which employ a fake-medieval ‘mode’ surrounded by horrid sentimental chord clusters.

This is where there’s no substitute for an organist trained in the ancient art of thinking in harmonies and instantly expressing those thoughts with his fingers and feet. Edward replaced Gelineau’s gloop with the sonorities of Elgar, played nobilmente. Likewise, when we reached the last verse of ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’, an obvious choice for the Communion hymn, he reharmonised the splendid but penny-plain tune with modulations worthy of Bruckner.

This wasn’t one of those occasions when the music overwhelms the liturgy. Nothing distracted from the sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated by Fr Patrick with transcendent reverence.

Even so, I have the irascible Lutheran Cantor of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, to thank for transforming the uniquely poignant moment when the priest, my sister and I met the coffin at the door of the church.

Bach’s E flat Prelude is conceived on an epic scale; the dotted grandeur of its overture gives way to a sort of contrapuntal ecstasy. All three of us were visibly affected by the music, as well we might be. In the final section Bach employs all his skill to sweep the listener up to heaven — where, I trust, my mother relished his genius as much as we did.


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