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One Equal Music 10

Written by David Bannister, posted on Sunday, June 14, 2020

Music manuscriptI

Without arms or charm of culture, Persons of no importance From an unimportant Province, They did as the Spirit bid, Went forth into a joyless world Of swords and rhetoric To bring it joy.

When they heard the Word, some demurred, some mocked, some were shocked: but many were stirred and the Word spread. Lives long dead were quickened to life; the sick were healed by the Truth revealed; released into peace from the gin of old sin, men forgot themselves in the glory of the story told by the Twelve. Then the Dark Lord, adored by this world, perceived the threat of the Light to his might. From his throne he spoke to his own. The loud crowd, the sedate engines of State, were moved by his will to kill. It was done. One by one, they were caught, tortured, and slain.


O Lord, my God, Though I forsake thee Forsake me not, But guide me as I walk Through the valley of mistrust, And let the cry of my disbelieving absence Come unto thee, Thou who declared unto Moses: "I shall be there."


Children play about the ancestral graves, for the dead no longer walk. Excellent still in their splendour are the antique statues: but can do neither good nor evil. Beautiful still are the starry heavens: but our fate is not written there. Holy still is speech, but there is no sacred tongue: the Truth may be told in all. Twelve as the winds and the months are those who taught us these things: envisaging each in an oval glory, let us praise them all with a merry noise.

Words by W.H. Auden (1907-73)

At this time, we reflect upon the divine compassion shown towards us through Jesus together with the twelve apostles. In today’s gospel, Matthew 9.35-10.8, we hear of the commissioning of beings very much like you or I, flawed and frail, to carry out the work of the Holy Spirit. The apostles (apostle=one who is sent) will go on to minister to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ to ‘proclaim the good news’ and ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’.

Perhaps this would be a suitable point to set forth with a few brief words examining a liturgical work, which explores the above themes in a truly dynamic way. ‘The Twelve: An Anthem for the Feast of any Apostle’, the result of a joint effort by two of Christ Church’s most celebrated sons, with text by Wystan Hugh Auden and set to music by William Walton (1902-83), was commissioned in 1964 by the progressive and pastorally minded Dean, Cuthbert Simpson.

One could choose from a number of pieces associated with the Cathedral, or from the rich collection of manuscripts held in the library, but this dynamic choral work, which is truly one of the Cathedral’s treasures and a glory of C20th church music, is, perhaps, the strongest candidate.

Substantial in length, and being more along the lines of a mini cantata, ‘The Twelve’ received its first performance in May 1965 under the directorship of the then Organist, Sydney Watson. Walton orchestrated the work for use in the January of the following year during the 900th anniversary celebrations of Westminster Abbey, though it is most commonly performed in its original scoring for choir and organ alone.

The process of working with Auden’s poetry is known to have caused Walton a degree of anguish, with the composer quoted as saying that the text was ‘obscure and difficult to set’. It is more likely, however, that this remark has its fount in Walton’s obsessively perfectionistic nature, as the resulting marriage of words and music produces a compellingly emotional, yet structured, response to the apostles’ story.

Like other works in Walton’s output, the musical language is rich: highly rhythmic, harmonically lush, and with a highly varied approach to texture. Much of these stylistic aspects were assimilated whilst still an undergraduate at Christ Church (having been accepted, after early formation as a Cathedral Chorister, at the unusually young age of 16.) where, under the influence of Hugh Allen, Professor of Music at the time, he immersed himself in the music of the day from composers such as Debussy, Sibelius, and Stravinsky.

Every great choir feels a keen responsibility to act as advocate for works with which it is associated, and we are fortunate that our Cathedral Choir has not shirked in this regard, as heard in the following recording under the previous Organist, Stephen Darlington.