Sound of voices

I attended the funeral of my recently departed friend yesterday lunchtime in London. Mark was a singer and musician with a wide range of friends and colleagues, and the church was packed with the great and the good of the musical and other worlds from long before the service began.

Even on the journey in I bumped into the conductor of next year’s first performance of the Dunstan cantata on the tube, lugging around a holdall full of vocal scores of my recent scribblings, and from the moment I got to the church there were small nods of greeting here and there, friends and faces recognised from recently and from further back. I saw heroes of mine, colleagues, friends, former pupils, people from all parts of the musical spectrum.

Of course, when a musician departs this life, even in the saddest of circumstances, you can more or less wager your house that the music at the funeral or remembrance service will be little short of spectacular, and thus it was yesterday. The Requiem by Vittoria coupled with exquisite plainchant and other Renaissance works, performed by some of the best singers in the capital and directed by one of the best conductors in the business.

At the end of the service, as the coffin was taken out of the church, other singers joined the core choir to perform the Ave Maria by Robert Parsons, a work of such eloquence and beauty that I am convinced it was written as a response by the (Catholic) composer to the news that Queen Mary was pregnant, and thus about to supply England with a Catholic succession after all the Henrican hooha. The pregnancy was phantom, though, but the succession in Parsons’ music is glorious, from the rising Aves at the beginning to the Amens that surge ever higher at the end and this particular performance by a choir of nigh on one hundred singers was way, way beyond words.

Parsons drowned in the River Trent in his late thirties, on his way to see his friend William Byrd, as it happened, so was cut short in what was promising to be a considerable prime. Mark, too, is gone before the age of forty, but the sound of that extraordinary choir singing that exquisite music – Howells’s immemorial sound of voices – will stay with me until it is my turn to go, and that piece will now forever remind me of him, and that is a very good thing indeed.