When I saw that St Bart’s was looking to commission a composer to create a new piece for their 900th Anniversary celebrations I was immediately interested as it encompasses many of my favourite compositional elements, medieval history, forgotten voices and telling stories through music. I did not know the Betjeman poem given as the text but was intrigued as to the identity of the mysterious Rahere whose ghost still walks St.Bart's. He is, in fact, the church's founder in 1123, but more than that he seems to have been an extraordinarily driven and well liked man and anecdotally an excellent musician. During my research into Rahere I came across the Book of the Foundation, written by one of the canons of the monastery, and finished by him after the death of Rahere's successor, Prior Thomas, in 1174 the first part of which describes Rahere's journey to Rome, illness and vision of St Bartholomew which led to his founding of the priory and hospital.
This story was too good not to share so I created a collocation of Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘St Bartholomew’s Hospital written for Master of Chirurgurie Wickham’ 7th July 1975 with words and phrases from the Book of the Foundation and bible verses that comment on Rahere’s story, from the darkness of his illness and vision in Rome to the light, healing and compassion offered by the church he founded. The text is set so that one Choir sings mostly the poem and one mostly the additional text. The overall mood of the piece provides a journey from darkness to light through brightening tonality and tempo encompassing the reflective yet celebratory nature of the anniversary celebration.
Initially I intended to find a Troubadour song to use as a musical stimulus, reflecting the use of secular tunes as cantus firmus (a fixed melody around which the music is written) in sacred music of the medieval era, but it soon became apparent that most extant melodies are from later in the twelfth century. St Godric, (c.1065 to 1170, therefore a contemporary of Rahere) was a ship’s captain who spent the last sixty years of his life as a hermit near Durham. He wrote four songs which are recognised as the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. The text of one of these songs seems particularly apt for St Bart’s:
Crist and Sainte Marie swa on scamel me iledde
þat ic on þis erðe ne silde wid mine bare footen i tredde
(Christ and Saint Mary so on crutches me led
That on this earth nor silt with my bare feet I tread.)
It is however the tune, (or my interpretation of it) that forms the basis of the music, being used as both a cantus firmus and melody with the opening and closing sections reflecting the ‘kyrie eleison’ found on the original song manuscript.
I thoroughly enjoyed the research and composition of this piece and very much look forward to hearing it premiered during the 900th Anniversary Music Festival in September 2023.
I AM BARTHOLOMEW Priory Church Choir dir. Rupert Gough
St Bartholomew the Great: The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London EC1A 9DS
Wednesday 20th September 2023 19:00 A Choral Eucharist for Founder’s Day, the anniversary of the death of Prior Rahere
Friday 29th September 2023 19:00 Gala Concert, The Choir of St Bartholomew the Great and the City of London Sinfonia
Find out more at https://www.greatstbarts.com/900th-anniversary-music-festival/