The 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

Last year as part of our main two-week event in October, we staged a concert dedicated to celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, put together by soprano Emily Armour. Here, she talks about how she went about organising such a programme.

emilyarmour5I was delighted to be asked to put together a concert for the Two Moors Festival celebrating the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I accepted with alacrity, booked some other singers and roped in an organist friend of mine to accompany us. So far, so good. Then I had to think about what music to programme. Panic!! I realised that while I may have sung lots of settings of texts from the Book of Common Prayer, I knew next to nothing about its history. I’m not a priest or a historian. I’m only a singer, and a soprano at that (apparently we have resonating chambers instead of brains). PANIC!!! What would we do without Google?!

I had a fascinating time finding out about how the Book of Common Prayer came into being (way earlier than 1662 by the way). I learnt all about the Civil War.  That may have involved a rather embarrassing call to my father with lots of splutterings about “well, what on earth do they teach you in these fancy schools then?”). I discovered that so many phrases that we use all the time come from the Book, such as ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ and all sorts of other things like ‘sheep going astray’ and so on. You should see the list of people at the back of the Book saying who you aren’t allowed to marry.

I wanted to avoid the concert sounding like a church service, while nonetheless celebrating a religious text.  That was an interesting balance to strike. I hope we managed it. The other thing that proved slightly difficult was having to remind myself that we couldn’t do massive Victorian choral works with just four singers, even if there are only four parts. With one exception, all of our repertoire was in English, which at least made communication with the audience easier. I also wanted to mix up the different types of sounds. We had some chant and some solo items, some cheery Handel and lots of verse anthems to allow each of us a chance to shine. We even let Martin do an organ piece on his own.

I’m not very used to creating programmes, especially themed ones. While stressful at times (panic!), this was a fascinating adventure and ultimately a pretty successful one. As someone who spends an awful lot of time singing chorally in churches, I am glad I now know so much more about the context of the music I am singing, both liturgically and historically. I hope others feel their appreciation of the Book of Common Prayer has been enriched too.

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