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60 years of Spode Music Week – a hidden gem of English Catholic life

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Thu, December 05, 2013 21:11:16

August 2013 saw the 60th Spode Music Week take place, including special celebrations for its Diamond anniversary. Most English Catholics know nothing of this unsung success story. The week has never sought wide publicity, but has just got on quietly with the business of enriching all who have come into its orbit, over more than two generations. It is fitting in its anniversary year that the spotlight falls briefly on it so that those interested can get a sense of who is involved, what happens there, and what the importance of this for the wider church might be.

[Note: an updated and slightly edited version of this article was published in the July 11th 2014 edition of The Catholic Herald, on page 8, under the title "English Catholicism's secret musical treasure"]

In August 2013 around 80 people, mainly lay, ranging in age from 1 to 85, gathered in the Worcestershire countryside for a week of intensive music making, much to a very high standard, with the Catholic liturgy at its heart, but with much secular music in the mix.

Every day of the week, a full sung mass was celebrated, and compline was sung: to different settings almost every day. This anniversary year was particularly graced by two new commissions, an 8-part setting of the Mass by the composer Matthew Martin, and a setting of Panis Angelicus for children’s choir by the composer Alexander L’Estrange.

On the secular side, among other offerings the week saw a spirited staged performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (in honour of his centenary), a Prokofiev Symphony, and a medley of light classics including the celebrated Knightsbridge March by Eric Coates, in an arrangement by one of the many talented younger musicians that give their time and energies to the week.

And on top of all this came the multitude of informal and out-of-hours opportunities for chamber music of all sorts, amounting in total to what a former course chaplain, Fr Chris McCurry, once described as “an orgy of music making”, one further enriched by food, wine, and friendship!

What is the secret of Spode Music Week’s success, and what can Catholics learn from this?

The week was in fact the brainchild of the late Conrad Pepler, OP, much loved Warden of Spode House, a Dominican Conference and Retreat Centre in the grounds of Hawkesyard Priory, Staffordshire, sadly long since closed. His behind the scenes manifold self-effacing acts of nurturing, praying for (and probably subsidizing) the week over nearly 30 years up until his retirement in 1981 has proved one of the spiritual wellsprings of the week.

Pepler’s simple but brilliant idea was a daily format which, with one or two minor adjustments, survives today. Rehearsals after breakfast, a mid morning lecture by an invited guest, sung mass at noon, further late afternoon rehearsals, a concert after dinner, and sung compline to end the formal proceedings. Surrounding these daily fixed points an atmosphere has been established which is incredibly informal – more like an extended and somewhat chaotic (but warmhearted) family than a more traditional residential course.

This durable but flexible format has been filled with whatever music has enthused and inspired the dedicated and talented musicians that have led the week’s activities at its different stages. Longest serving musical director (1972-96) was the composer and pianist, the late Robert Sherlaw Johnson. Other distinguished musicians who have had long associations with week include the conductor and harpsichordist the late George Malcolm, CBE, who attended the very first week and was the course’s principal conductor for many years; the opera singer Jeremy White, who has served as Chair of the organizing committee since 1997; the conductor and singer Philip Duffy (former Master of Music at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral); organist and choral director David Bevan; and the early music specialist Dr Mary Remnant, who currently serves as one of three patrons of the week, together with Sir Nicholas Kenyon CBE, Director of the Barbican Arts Centre, and myself.

By the time that the closure of Spode House was rather suddenly announced in 1987, there was such a commitment to the week and to each other from the many attenders who came back year after year, bringing first their friends, their spouses and children, and even – latterly - their grandchildren, that there could be no thought of the course folding (or even changing its name!). Its members decided to seek a new home, committed if necessary to a peripatetic existence to ensure the survival of the course. The course is in fact now in its sixth location, a remarkable testament to the durability and sheer commitment of its members as successive venues have fallen by the wayside.

Whilst the week has always retained (indeed insisted on) a distinctive Catholic focus, one of its significant strengths has been its ability to provide a broad welcome to all who share a love of and commitment to music in the classical tradition, whether in or out of church. Several of the most loyal and longstanding members of the week are not Catholics, and its attenders also include Catholics of many different shades. They are all embraced under the benign attention of one or more course chaplains (who apart from their pastoral and liturgical duties, contribute fully to the week as singers and players).

The current chaplain is Monsignor Philip Whitmore, newly appointed Rector of the English College in Rome. He is assisted by Fr. Robert Verrill OP, who keeps alive a welcome connection to the week’s Dominican roots. The ’grandfather’ of the week is Fr. Michael Durand, currently a priest at Westminster Cathedral, who also participates in the chaplaincy team. He attended the very first week as a young man, and has been to most of the weeks since. But while the chaplains offer sterling and loyal support, the overall musical leadership, administration, and stewardship of the week is very much in lay hands. In fact, without the week-in-week-out quiet labour of a small, dedicated and largely unsung committee, the week would never have flourished as it has, let alone stayed solvent (without a penny of external subsidy).

Attendance is open to all. No formal level of musical involvement or qualification is needed, beyond a commitment to upholding the ethos of the course. There is a particular welcome for families with children, and an enduring and much loved feature of the week has been the provision of opportunities for the young and very young to play and sing together. Even finance need not be a problem, as course fees are extremely modest, and there are some special funds to support those in most need. In these respects the week serves a very different but complementary function to the excellent annual summer school of the Society of St Gregory, which is very much designed to professionally support the work of those who have official positions as liturgical or musical animateurs within parishes. Spode Music Week is simply about performing and listening to the best music that those assembled can make, in and for itself, to the greater glory of God. What happens outside the week as a result is up to the participants.

Bookings for the course each year fill up very quickly as enthusiastic repeat customers bag their places, but there are always sufficient newcomers in every year to avoid the week becoming cliqueish. There is a website (www.spodemusicweek.com) where details about past and future courses may be found, as well as contact details. In recent years, communications have been enlivened by an ever more active Facebook page where course members share memories, photographs, and video or audio clips of treasured past moments, as well as plans and hopes for the future.

Catholics in England and Wales should be rightly proud of this unique lay-led treasure in their midst. It is a musical and friendship community rooted in the church, sustained by prayer and liturgy, but with open doors, keeping faith with a considerable number of people (including a large number of younger adults) for whom this may be the main, or even the only truly meaningful, manifestation of the Catholic Church that they experience. Long may it continue to serve the church and the wider world as it has done so fully and roundly in the last 60 years.



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