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Monday, 9 January 2017

Discover & explore - John Dunstable

Today's Discover & explore service at St Stephen Walbrook exploring music and the work of John Dunstaple featured the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields singing Quam pulchra es and Descendi in ortum meum by Dunstable, Ave verum corpus by Byrd and O nata lux by Tallis.

Next week's Discover & explore service is on Monday 16 January at 1.10pm when Revd Sally Muggeridge, together with the Choral Scholars, will explore architecture and the achievements of Sir Christopher Wren.

In today's service I gave the following reflection (which draws on my co-authored book 'The Secret Chord'):

John Dunstaple … was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late medieval era and early Renaissance periods. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a near-contemporary of Leonel Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School.’

‘He died on Christmas Eve 1453, as recorded in his epitaph,’ which was here in the church of St Stephen Walbrook in London (until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666). ‘This was also his burial place. The epitaph – stating that he had "secret knowledge of the stars" – had been recorded in the early 17th century, and was reinstated in the church in 1904.’ 

That new memorial is by the London Section of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and ‘consists of a Latin inscription above, with simple pilasters and surround, matched with a charming 1900s lunette with three angels playing musical instruments, seated on clouds with little stars behind, at the top, and a wreath and fronds below.’ Its colourful painting on mosaic backing is in an excellent example of the Arts and Crafts style. 

Dunstaple's influence on the continent's musical vocabulary was enormous, particularly considering the relative paucity of his (attributable) works. He was recognized for possessing something never heard before in music of the Burgundian School: la contenance angloise ("the English countenance"), a term used by the poet Martin le Franc.’  This was probably ‘a reference to Dunstaple's stylistic trait of using full triadic harmony, along with a liking for the interval of the third.’ 

Harmonies, and the place of chords as a basis of harmony, give us a significant clue to understanding the power of music. Leonard Cohen's song ‘Hallelujah’ makes the claim that the Biblical King David had found a secret chord which, when played, pleased even God himself. The opening words to Cohen's song are extrapolated from the account in 1 Samuel 16: 14-23 of how King Saul asked for a skillful musician to be found so they could come and play to soothe Saul's troubled soul. It is clear that David was both a competent musician and also a prolific composer. According to the Scriptures, he would go on to curate and compose many of the 150 Psalms found in the Bible which survive in multiple translations as part of religious worship today. What Cohen surmises is that whatever David played, or, most likely, improvised, would have also pleased the Lord and the children of Israel's God, as well as calming down King Saul.

Cohen's romantic hypothesis is that David had actually stumbled across and therefore deliberately employed a particular chord that has this mysterious power. A chord is a group of (typically three or more) notes sounded together, as a basis of harmony. Arthur Sullivan in a song called ‘The Lost Chord’ wrote: ‘It seemed the harmonious echo / From our discordant life. / It linked all perplexèd meanings / Into one perfect peace.’ Music is a performance in which harmonies echoing from our discordant lives link all perplexèd meanings into one perfect peace. Music, in performance, is an unrepeatable moment in in which all things come together enabling us to feel God's pleasure. In this sense the Secret Chord, about which Leonard Cohen writes, is indeed pleasing to the Lord.

As a result of this linking of the echoes from our discordant lives, Cohen’s Hallelujah includes both the sacred and the sinful – the holy and the broken Hallelujah. It doesn’t matter which you heard, he suggests, because a blaze of light is found in every word and he will be able to stand before God – the Lord of Song – presumably at the Last Judgement and simply sing Hallelujah itself because both the holy and the broken are encapsulated in the one word and one chord.

This is to say that distinctions between sacred and secular are false divides as all of life and all music is holy. As David Adam has stated: 'We need to reveal that our God is in all the world and waits to be discovered there – or, to be more exact, the world is in Him, all is in the heart of God.’ Dunstaple, too, provides us with an example of this as, although known primarily a composer of sacred music, is also believed to have written secular music, although no songs in the vernacular can be attributed to him with any degree of certainty.

Ultimately, music is a symbol of the means by which God created, and the musician is a partner with God in the creative process. Therefore we can pray, with the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn to be a little of God’s creative breath as it moves over the waters of chaos to bring all things into being. In other words, to see and hear life as God sees and hears it and to articulate something of that vision.


Bless those who give their time and musical talent in service to You and to Your Church, O Lord, as they sing praises to You, and glorify Your Name. Let their music be a witness to Your majesty and love, and remind us all of Your presence in our lives. Help them to bring the Word of God to others through music, chant and hymn singing. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, may the gifts of our voices and melodies of our instruments move with the work of your Holy Spirit. May we bring light into dark places, restore hope and vision to all who are oppressed, and well-being and health to all those who suffer. Today Lord, we give you our worship. May it be a platform for you, Father God, to touch our lives afresh and build your Church. Bless our music that it might glorify your name. May the talent that you have bestowed upon us be used only to serve you. O God, whose saints and angels delight to worship in heaven. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Creator God, be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by Your people on earth; and grant to us even now a glimpse of Your beauty, and make us worthy at length to behold it forevermore. We thank you that you hear us, our words in prayer, our silent thoughts and pleas and each note or melody we sing and play. May our praises today connect with heaven and unite our hearts with the sound of eternity. Let our music be a witness to your majesty and love, and may your presence and beauty be found in every note. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


John Dunstable - Descendi in ortum meum.

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