Composed from 2001-3 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of St Mary de Haura church in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the south coast of England, This Church is an hour-long work for mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, two narrators, choir, organ, handbells and ensemble. It’s more a kind of church parable than anything else, but instead of drawing on biblical sources, uses an extensive collage of texts that encompass the lifetime of the church (the earliest, again from Hildegard of Bingen, dates from the 12th century), predominately drawing on the words of local people directly connected to the building and its immediate environs. There is a tone of celebration in This Church , but it’s an implicit one, only becoming apparent over time. For arguably the message that resounds loudest and clearest is how close the church came to structural collapse and spiritual bankruptcy.
While it isn’t, in fact, hastily done, Finnissy makes the narrative progression of Part I feel precipitous, and its opening anthem in praise of the virgin Mary precarious; deliberately distant (literally), as a joyful act of consecration and commitment it’s far-off and somewhat dimly-perceived. The music then launches into something of a sharp parabola, in the hands of the baritone, first passing through a strange duet with a slip-sliding microtonal flute, extolling the church “flooded with the light of God”, leading to slightly askew bit of chorale preludery. And then we crash back to earth, in a stern, lengthy diatribe from the baritone—punctuated with wincingly sharp twists from a ratchet—denouncing how “All godly ceremonyes & good usys were taken out of this Church” during the reign of Edward VI, when Protestantism was established in England. It’s an impressive, intimidating solo, pulling the rug from under the piece less than 10 minutes in.
Part 2 opens with tightly-woven ensemble counterpoint accompanying a narrative account, now a century later, of St Mary’s having fallen into a state of disrepair. There’s a curious attractive queasiness to the music, made ominous in another baritone solo (this time accompanied by wild turns from a wind machine) declaiming a violent storm that fell upon the town. The implication and spiritual metaphor is clear: that these are the desserts of desertion, becoming dilapidated and lashed by the elements. But now Finnissy finally starts to turn things around; over a dance-like folk melody accompanied by handbells (their clarity and beauty almost overwhelming at this point), the choir celebrates the founding of the Charity School, a fresh start for the community, reinforced by a subsequent prosecution of the previous minister for a lengthy litany of “misdemeanours”. It concludes with a fascinating baritone aria, encapsulating the tone of Part 2 in a soliloquy on the vulnerability of faith, using words by John Wesley that bespeak determination and bewail struggle.
By the start of Part 3, now in the 19th Century, the music, like the building, has become altogether more secure and solid. It opens with a riposte to the start of Part 2, the ensemble creating a lyrical backdrop for a bold account of the church’s key features, articulated by the narrators with the kind of over-earnest zeal one usually encounters from volunteer guides at National Trust properties. A momentary injection of austere poetry from the baritone (“This church, full in the eye of the cynical, discomfortable moon staring from the fading sky”) is answered by a gentle, even fragile, congregational moment bringing to mind the simple beauty of equivalent moments in Peter Grimes . This spurs the baritone to greater confidence, launching into a text by Swinburne, by turns demonstrative and wistful, singing the praises of a place now regarded as almost unassailable: “strong as time … its tower set square to the storms of air and change of season that glooms and glows”, after which we return to the congregation for a tender closing hymn.
The final part expands the hitherto parochial view as far away as Melanesia, in a boisterous song, infused with log-drum and bass flute, sending greetings from a distant missionary. Following a pause, the piece then tilt-shifts again, Finnissy calling upon the unsettling combination of piccolo and double bass plus piano for a cold narration concerning the outbreak of war. This is music with its lifeblood drained away, vague and futile, mirroring the desperate hopes against hope for a peaceful outcome, in the process becoming ever more militaristic. As they did in Part 2, handbells again break the music free of the greyness that threatens to consume it, leading to an ever brighter conclusion. The baritone sings of the church’s spiritual attributes, the choir of its more prosaic but more immediately meaningful qualities, testifying to the importance of a place at the heart of the community. Via some rather wondrous organ dissonance, Finnissy brings the work to an end in a joyous final hymn (to George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’), a dauntless display of bell-strewn unity and certainty.
Appropriately, the recording of the piece took place within St Mary de Haura church, conducted by Finnissy himself, with the Ixion ensemble and soloists Jane Money and Richard Jackson. It’s a challenging and affecting work that says big things about both the fragility and tenacity of faith, hope and community throughout the ages of an ever-changing world.