Monday, 29 April 2013

Hussey's gifts

Here's a churchman who has left the world a better place: the remarkable, or at least remarkably persuasive, Walter Hussey (1909-85). I was going to put 'the good dean', but then I read Frances Spalding in her book on the Pipers describing him as 'a conflicted person...unable to conceal his passion for boys' (not so much of a problem only if, like Britten, he never acted on it, and Spalding's turn of phrase suggests he did).

The almost-finished portrait by Graham Sutherland below hangs in Chichester's Pallant House Gallery, which we're returning to visit when it's open; Hussey chose Pallant House as the recipient of his own collection and it now has one of the best selections of British 20th century art in the country as well as a series of enticing exhibitions.

Anyway, as vicar of St Matthew's Northampton, his home town, Hussey helped to commission wonders I'd like to go and see there, chiefly a Madonna and Child by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland's striking Crucifixion. These gave the cue for the art of the new Coventry Cathedral. The others we can hear or read at will - Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb was composed for the church's 50th anniversary, and there was other music from Finzi, Tippett. Malcom Arnold, Rubbra and Lennox Berkeley.

Auden (pictured below in 1939, some years before the commission in question)  wrote Hussey a rather tart prose Litany followed by an Anthem for St Matthew's Day - hard to find, though I've just come across excerpts in an Australian newspaper. They include an amusing-serious prayer for 'all who, like our patron saint, the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, occupy positions of petty and unpopular authority, through whose persons we suffer the impersonal discipline of the state...deliver us, as private citizens, from confusing the office with the man...and from forgetting that it is our impatience and indolence, our own injustice, that creates the state to be a punishment and a remedy for sin'.

I'm getting carried away by Auden's drollness, but let me just also include the following: 'deliver us, we pray thee, in our pleasure and in our pain, in our hour of elation and our hour of wan hope, from insolence and envy, from pride in our virtue, from fear of public opinion, from the craving to be amusing at all costs, and from the temptation to pray, if we pray at all: "I thank Thee, Lord, that I am an interesting sinner and not as this Phrarisee" '.

Our Easter weekend visit to Themy and Eben in the Cathedral Close was the chance to find out how much we owe to Hussey, the great yet cosy building's dean from 1955 to 1977: chiefly the John Piper altarpiece, Sutherland painting and Chagall window. Arriving there as a known advocate of the new, Hussey had to tread more carefully at first with the antique sensibilities of the clergy.  The first task was to reinstate the Arundel Screen we so admired on Easter Saturday. Work on the chapel of St Mary Magdalen followed, showcasing Noli me tangere, a work by Sutherland more miniature by far than the Northampton Crucifixion or the vast Coventry tapestry.

Introduced to John Piper by Spence and Moore, Hussey discussed with him what might be done with the high altar reredos now that the 16th century Sherburne Screen was revealed. Piper didn't much care for Hussey's proposal of gleaming enamels, suggesting instead a tapestry which he wanted to avoid approaching in 'too painterly a way' like Sutherland's in Coventry and settling on shapes rather than figures. Woven by Pinton Frères near Aubusson, the finished work has six panels. Central are symbols of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, while on either side are those of the four Evangelists matched to the four elements.

What a marvellous designer Piper would have made for Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, on the evidence of his earth, air, fire and water. The latter two are to the right of the Tau cross, matched to Luke's winged ox and John's winged eagle (seen in the detail up top) while to the left earth joins Matthew's winged man and air Mark's winged lion (below)

Of course the installation in 1966 caused a hubbub. A canon pointedly attended the opening evensong in dark glasses. But there were plenty of others who loved it, like the Chichester resident who wrote, as quoted in Spalding's book, that she 'felt here was something glowing and alive and symbolic of what the church must and should be in the present age. It took away the feeling that Christianity is old and crumbling like the cathedral'.

I love its vibrancy, and never more than at the Easter Vigil when the lights finally went up and the altarpiece's magic was glimpsed through the Arundel Screen. J thinks it's a bit of its time, but agrees that high quality art works don't often join the old in churches and cathedrals (I think of the amateurish tapestries in Durham). Hussey also had commissioned for Chichester a window by Chagall

which is based on the celebration of the final psalm, 150: 'Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord'.

It's encouraged us to make an expedition in due course to Tudeley Church near Tonbridge, which has no less than 12 Chagall windows designed and executed over a period of 15 years.

Curiously, nothing can seem more modern in Chichester Cathedral than the two Romanesque panels in Caen limestone (second quarter of the 12th century, it's now believed) depicting Christ arriving in Bethany and the subsequent Raising of Lazarus. Those expressive heads seem both old and new. Sadly they're now behind glass, and hard to see, but we illuminated them with torchlight, which may give the faces a rather unwonted look. Thus Christ

as well as Martha and Mary.

But I digress. One final extraordinary commission, thanks to Hussey's far-sightedness, was Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Humphrey Burton's magnificent biography of 'Lenny' quotes a letter Hussey wrote to him in which he notes,  'I think many of us would be very delighted  if there was a hint of "West Side Story" about the music'. More than a hint emerged: Burton also tells us that the 'Why do the heathens' sequence, cutting percussively into the lyric treble/countertenor solo of the middle movement, was reworked from a discarded chorus in the musical's Prologue.

There was some debate about Bernstein's slightly tricksy wish for the actual premiere to take place in New York first; Hussey soon graciously deferred. But how remarkable that soon after, in July 1965, an Anglican cathedral played host to the Psalms as sung in Hebrew. That makes them, along with all the metrical changes apparent even in the opening,

devilishly difficult as well as liberating to sing, as I know from performing them with the Renaissance Singers, organ and percussion, in Edinburgh during my student days.

Later I heard Bernstein not long before his death conduct the Chichester Psalms with the London Symphony Orchestra and then-treble Aled Jones; by that time the master was taking them a bit too slow and reverently. I met him not long afterwards, courtesy of Ted Greenfield who took me along to the Candide recording sessions in December 1989, Bernstein's last. He grabbed me by the hand, and strode towards the gents with me still locked in his grasp, fortunately soon released. But what a man! Like half the cast, he was struggling with a nasty strain of influenza that was doing the rounds and even attacked Buckingham Palace, leading Bernstein to call it 'the royal flu'. He died the following October.

Here he is, anyway, conducting the three movements of the Chichester Psalms. The coming-together nature of the piece is further emphasised in 1977 by the Berlin location, the young Austrians in the choir alongside the Vienna Boys' Choir soloist and the collaboration of Bernstein's beloved Israel Philharmonic.

Bach cantata for the week is 'Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe', BWV 108, for the fourth (Cantate) Sunday after Easter. Composed for Leipzig in 1725, so for performance exactly a week later than the pick of last week's three cantatas ' Ihr werdet weinen und heulen', it boasts another splendid chorus, this time at its very core: a fugue in which the theme is very briskly snatched up, that opening idea varied with an elegantly rhythmed turn or gruppetto on 'zukünftig' (the future) in the third set of 'runs'. The text of the bass's opening aria, with a lightness-of-being oboe d'amore stealing the show, is taken from Christ's so-called 'Farewell Discourse' in John 16. Strictly speaking, the 'true vine' speech belongs to the previous chapter, but it's all I need as excuse for its fascinating realisation in a 16th century eastern orthodox manuscript.

Third of the vocal solos, with a second solo instrument in the shape of a violin obbligato, is the alto's 'Was mein Herz von dir begehrt'. There are interesting expressive shadings on 'Herz' and later, in the setting of 'überschutte' ('shower') and repeated notes on 'schaue' (regard). These new sentiments having run their course, there's no vocal repeat of the first section, and the short cantata is quickly tied up with the affirmative final chorale. Once again Suzuki with Gilchrist and Blaze - bass Dominic Wörner much less good, salvaged by the Japanese oboe d'amoreist - delivered the goods; on YouTube Harnoncourt is the only familiar choice.

The photos of the Piper altarpiece, the detail of the Chagall window and the Romanesque faces are mine. Sutherland portrait courtesy of the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester; the rest (I think) Wikidomain.


David Damant said...

Sutherland's achievements had an essential element in his brilliant surfaces. Thus the tapestry at Coventry (Christ the King)appears to me inappropriately soft in texture. [ Also on my visit it was possible to turn off the light illuminating Christ at the touch of a switch. God, said Colonel Robert G Ingersoll is the noblest work of man. At least it should be a gradually growing or fading light.]
The reason why Sutherland's portrait of Churchill was a bad portrait was that it showed a character that Churchill did not possess even in old age ( and we know a great deal about him from many sources) If he looked like that at the sitting it was because he was in pain or was bored by the artist ( "dull" according to one commentator). Whether it was a good picture from the purely painterly point of view is another matter, but portraits are supposed to show more than a photograph and in that sense this one was just wrong

David said...

I don't know Sutherland's portrait of Churchill - shall check it out forthwith. I've never even been to Coventry Cathedral, though I'd love to have got there for the CBSO's 50th anniversary performance of Britten's War Requiem. Apparently it can be seen on a site called thespace. It was screened all over the continent - but not in Blighty. What does that say about our telly culture?

David Damant said...

The presentation to Churchill of the Sutherland portrait is at " Offensive portrait of Churchill destroyed/Goldmark " See the man there, always called Winston by everyone, and compare him with the portrait. Some of the sketches by Sutherland at the Portrait Gallery are better than the finished product

Susan Scheid said...

So interesting to look at the 12th C panels after an eyeful of new art--it does bring out the modern in them, doesn't it? I'm reminded of visiting Elisabethkirche in Marburg, an early Gothic with a modern crucifix. With some searching, I found this about it: "The altar of the Holy Cross is adorned with an expressionist bronze crucifix by Ernst Barlach, which was originally designed for a war cemetery in 1918 and has been in this church since 1931. As the Nazi-regime regarded Barlach´s work as degenerate this crucifix only survived destruction by being hidden in an attic." I want to say also that there was some modern stained glass, as I believe at least some of the original windows were destroyed during WW2, but my visual memory, beyond the striking, and moving, juxtaposition of old and new, is hazy so many years on.

I haven't listened to the Chichester Psalms in a long time. The opportunity to revisit that piece must wait a bit, as with further Cantata installments, as they won't play on the iPad. Annoying that, but I can at least enjoy your story of meeting Bernstein (!) and the incredible true vine mss you display.

Brief Ring report: Siegfried was sublime. Lepage's production, while still troublesome overall, was much more "in keeping" and stunning in spots, though requiring the cast to perform long segments on a raked stage in difficult lighting seems to me unnecessary at best. The singing and the orchestra were superb throughout. Gerhard Siegel, as Mime, was a stand-out in what I (though, again, I have no real basis for comparison) and everyone I spoke with thought was a tremendously strong cast. And the music! Ah, the music!

David said...

Well, if you've got a Siegfried who stays the course and doesn't make you wince - and yours clearly didn't - that's a start. One day someone will find a young god who sings like one. Though frankly just a suggestion of youthfulness will do. Siegel is excellent, I know.

wanderer said...

Surprisingly, the only time I've cried through Siegfried was with Heppner, and there's nothing too youthful there, nor certainty of going the distance. Yet, all rolly polly with a lumberjack shirt hanging out, he sang with such innocence and beautiful naivety (and here I specifically mean singing of/to his mother as forest bird, in this production the one and same as the leitmotif suggests) that all disbelief didn't need to be suspended, it was simply erased, and I blubbered in the front stalls. K was embarrassed.

It was a not dissimilar experience to Sutherland's Lucia ( I seem to recall late Sutherland not really your cuppa) when in the house the voice so overwhelmed the physicality that the music as written was left to do its job - channel the emotion and the character. Many of today's sopranos (well, one in particular) have need to resort to the opposite - let the histrionics achieve what the voice can't.

David said...

Hijacked by Wagnermania thrice over. To which I will only answer that I ADORED Joanie - my gateway to opera as a teenager. Maria Stuarda was my first opera at Covent Garden. Then I saw Salome and realised the bel canto rep wasn't so much my cup of tea. But I carried on worshipping at La Stupenda's shrine.

But back to the Sutherland who's one of the real themes. David's remark about the sketches of Churchill being better than the finished (destroyed) thing - which I like very much from what I've seen incidentally, will drop in on NPG - applies to an exhibition close to Sue's stamping ground, if not her heart. Room One of the Nat Gall is devoted to Frederic Church of Olana. His finished nature pictures seem overworked and sterile to me, but the studies - for Niagara Falls especially - have all the magic and motion the bigger canvases lack.

David Damant said...

The Sutherland portrait is as a picture perhaps magnificent but as regards showing Churchill's character it is wrong. Even when very old ( years after the picture was painted) he was detached and calm about fate - as he said, in the face of death the wise accept the future, whether another life, or oblivion. The tension in the portrait was not in his character. His boyishness (he was called Winston by everyone) and idiosyncratic approach to life do not appear. Perhaps his humour contained vanity ( see how pleased he was in the little film when his joke about modern art was appreciated) but that and other faults which may be adduced were not revealed. I wonder - I have never seen this mentioned - whether the stroke he suffered, which was hidden from the public, was at the time of the portrait still requiring him to take a grip on himself. That would explain the high level of tension. The half sideways sketch which I think with others is in the NPG is much better

David said...

Having just seen the footage you recommended, I see that the half-sideways representation I liked is in fact the surviving sketch you write about, and it would have been better if the big portrait had stuck to that. Even so, I think it's a shame Churchill snickers about 'modern art' (as you say, it's hardly modern),

But re the actual state of Churchill's mind when the portrait was painted, how do we know? We weren't there. We know about Churchill's black dog and the unhappiness of his last years. And you surely contradict your earlier assertion that it's too photographic. Whether a correct reflection of the meeting or not, it's still a psychological portrait. A thousand times preferable to the soft-pornish image of Princess Kate, a ridiculous and unreal piece of work on any level.

David Damant said...

One has ( quite rightly )to be so exact in this blog......I should have enunciated more clearly that this portrait DOES fulfill the requirement of showing more than a photograph. Having done so however the character portrayed even if right at the time of sitting was not a record of general validity, so not suitable to hang in the Houses of Parliament. Apologies for rabbiting on

Susan Scheid said...

I now pay penance of the most delightful sort to peruse further, after sullying this post with my opera report! First, I've found my Chichester Psalms CD and have it out to play tonight. Second, I looked up the Cathedral and Sutherland's work. I love the images you show, BTW. I wasn't at all familiar with him, but now will keep a look-out. Now, as for Church/Olana: Olana is such a beautiful place, and, thankfully, due to diligent citizens, the view out from it remains mostly unsullied. So, when I look at Church's paintings, though they may not be my favorites of all paintings (much for the reasons you name), I still like them, for they do evoke that landscape, and particularly its light. (I tried also to find the Churchill portrait and sketch you discuss here, but npg does not seem to let me past the fundraising screen. I think I found them elsewhere, but can't be sure.) Next stop, the Bach. I shall return!

David said...

David - I think what you're saying is that it was too private a portrait for a public place, and it certainly clashes with the bluff persona he presents when being wryly - or so he thinks - rude about its unveiling. Was Clemmie nuts when she burnt it?

Sue - that remark was not aimed at you, who always cover so many bases, but gently at wanderer, who managed to chat Wagner here and twice more elsewhere (though he did weave in a 'fat cannolo' reference in bringing up Bryn...) I suppose I am a little touchy if the blog subject is ignored COMPLETELY, but I also love it when the chat takes a surprising turn, as you know. And I love my Wagner in selective, passionate dollops too.

Church's big cumulo-nimbus clouds in the pictures and sketches represented in the little exhibition - and there were a few of your lovely neighbouring hilltop home - certainly brought back memories of standing in the porch at Olana watching one of many wild thunderstorms over those two days crashing and flashing around the Hudson Valley. You have big sky country indeed!

Peter Webster said...

Hussey's career is now fully documented for the first time in this (my) new book:

David said...

I look forward to reading it. Guessing you catch all sides of a complicated man.

Peter Webster said...

I've certainly aimed to; of course, whether I'm successful is a question for readers, particularly those who knew him. I'm hoping for a review or two.