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Reflecting the beauty of a private catholic chapel in music

Bernadette Kehoe - The Tablet - Fri, Feb 9th 2018

Bernadette Kehoe attends the first public performance of Sir James Macmillan's Motets for a private Catholic chapel

The renowned Catholic composer, Sir James Macmillan, has composed a set of Motets for a private Catholic chapel at a grand English country house. A few days ago, I was fortunate to be among those present when he conducted the Motets as they were performed in public for the first time, at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to an appreciative audience of mainly academics and students.

Professor Eamon Duffy set the tone with a talk before the recital on "Domestic Chapels in the Great Houses of England", an historical account of private places of devotion for powerful people and their households, served by chaplains.

Dispensations for private chapels were given up until the Reformation, after which many were lost. But some have crept back in modern times, and none more spectacular than one that’s recently been built from scratch at Culham Court on the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire.

Constructed in the style of a classical temple, with huge attention to detail, the Chapel of Christ the Redeemer took three years to build. The consecration service was led by the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor two years ago.

Sir James Macmillan explained how the first public performance of the Motets, with twelve voices, had allowed him to reflect more intensely on the spirituality of the composition: “I could feel an atmosphere, a real kind of presence in the performance. To be able to step back and hear it in a more relaxed setting was important. The interconnected flow was very moving and the singing really came together.”

The chapel is located in an estate owned by the Swiss financier, Urs Schwarzenbach.

Mrs Francesca Schwarzenbach was at the Cambridge performance and described how the simplicity of the recital allowed an intense focus on the way Sir James conducted the choir: “This occasion, following on from the consecration, was a chance to just focus on the beauty of the music, it was deeply spiritual. At Culham, the consecration of the chapel was a really enriching experience and the music was a part of that, but this was special because we could concentrate purely on the music and on James’ intense focus – he was a part of the choir.”

Sir James added : “The Holy Spirit is the basis for inspiration of the arts; inspiration for music comes from the Spirit. It’s something we don’t pursue enough in the Church.”

St Edmund’s has launched a new Music Society to coincide with the performance of the Culham Motets, with Sir James Macmillan, who is an Honorary Fellow of the College, as its patron.

An idea of the literary and historical context within which we heard these beautiful Motets can be imagined by referencing Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh. ’

Austen writes in Mansfield Park that the party arrives at Sotherton and is immediately given a tour of the house by Mr Rushworth’s mother, a garrulous old woman as dull as her son. Fanny is disappointed by the chapel, which is a mere room: "Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners.”

Waugh in Brideshead Revisited writes: “The last architect to work at Brideshead had added a colonnade and flanking pavilions. One of these was the chapel. We entered it by the public porch …Sebastian dipped his fingers in the water stoup, crossed himself, and genuflected; I copied him. ‘Why do you do that?’ he asked crossly. ‘Just good manners'.”

From the fiction of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh to modern day fact.

The Chapel of Christ the Redeemer is set on a hilltop within the Culham Court estate. In order to explain the chapel’s purpose, the trust behind it invokes architectural historian John Martin Robinson: “The aim of church art is to express divine beauty through human endeavour and thereby help turn men’s thoughts to God” and says it “evokes the link between the presence of God and the beauty and tranquillity of the natural landscape".

The Chapel is open to the public for Mass once a month and on Holydays of Obligation.

 Picture of composer Sir James Macmillan conducting at Cambridge by Joe Howarth

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