St George's Cathedral, Cape Town
Barry Smith and the music of freedom
A Sermon by The Reverend Chris Chivers, Precentor, Westminster Abbey,
for the Solemn Sung Eucharist in St George's Cathedral, Cape Town,
Sunday 18 April 2004
Wilbur Smith makes his debut as a best-selling writer with When the Lion Feeds, a rip-roaring African tale with what one reviewer describes as a 'smattering of healthy sex'. Not healthy enough for the local sensors who ban it. The copies sent by the publisher in London for the author's private collection in Cape Town, are confiscated by customs. Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali, a rather talkative twenty-one-year-old, surprises everyone when he defeats Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. The hit movie Mary Poppins introduces the 'oh so smiling' tones of Julie Andrews to the world. My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, sweeps the board with eight Oscars. Sean Connery makes his first appearance as James Bond in Goldfinger. Ian Smith becomes premier of Southern Rhodesia. Sydney Poitier is the first black actor to win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field. Stanley Baker's Zulu hits the screens. Among its stars is none other than Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Can't buy me love from the Beatles tops the charts for weeks. Nehru, the statesman and champion, with Gandhi, of home rule for India, reaches the end of his distinguished life. And the soldier doll Action Man makes its first appearance.
But for two South Africans, separated in age by 22 years, though in geographical proximity simply by the stretch of sea from Cape Town to Robben Island, the year 1964 is also the most momentous of their lives to date.
A talented, twenty-four-year-old musician arrives at this cathedral nervous but in earnest for his first day as Organist and Master of the Choristers. A few years before, the cathedral's Precentor had sacked the choir when they refused to sing a new setting for the Eucharist. And there is, so the new organist gathers, still a lot of spade work to be done. But with a supportive Dean, who is to become a legendary figure in Cape Town and beyond, and with an amusing and excitable Irish Precentor, the scene is set for some fairly dramatic developments. His assistant begins the weekly full choir practice. Half-way through, the young director is to take over the reins and to put the choir through its paces. He is introduced and rehearses first the canticles for Sunday Evensong - Stanford in B flat. As he moves on to the anthem, the carol This joyful Eastertide, he emphasises one or two points. The boys' sound is a bit thin, but they have great potential, he thinks. The practice ends, and as he leaves the cathedral he knows that here he can indeed build something worthy of the trust that has been placed in him.
Across the water on the Island, and things are rather different. A plane which had set off from Pretoria a few hours before, is about to land at perhaps the most barren of the world's air strips. As its doors open, a grim, overcast day greets the emerging figure of a forty-six year old lawyer, and the wind whips sharply through the thin prison uniform that he wears. He and six others have been sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of armed incursion, guerrilla warfare, and sabotage. Driven swiftly away from the air strip to the Island's stark prison - which will be his home for most of the twenty-seven succeeding years he spends in detention - he is ordered to strip naked whilst standing outside in the cold. It is the first of many indignities he will face. He reaches his cell, and finds that he can walk its length in exactly three paces. When he lies down he can feel the wall with his feet. But as he looks at his forlorn, damp surroundings, and peers through the tiny eye-level window onto the courtyard beyond, he is not bowed down. For he knows deep-down that one day his nation will be free from tyranny.
The rest, for both men - as they say - is history. But if Barry Smith feels a little uncomfortable at the parallel I have drawn - who wouldn't feel just a little daunted in the company of a statesman like former president Nelson Mandela - then I fear that what follows will compound the feeling.
For as we gather today to celebrate Barry's remarkable forty years at the helm of the music of this equally remarkable cathedral church, I have set a snatch of his story within the context of the narrative of one of his greatest South African compatriots for the simple reason that it belongs there. We are, so the sociologists tell us, never more than five or six people away from every other person on the planet. There is, in the end, something that connects us to everyone else - which is, I guess, just another way of expressing the defining African theology of ubuntu, of our humanity realised and brought to fulfilment only in relationship with our fellow human beings. Which is why Barry's and Nelson Mandela's stories belong so closely together. For the simple reason that what Barry has dreamt here - his wish to see God worshipped in as fitting, imaginative, and uplifting a way as possible, his desire to have people of every colour and culture united in God's praise - has been, and is, such a powerful expression of the dream to which the Mandelas and Tutus - and so many others in this rainbow nation - have likewise given their lives. Too little known is the fact, for instance, that the cathedral choir here became, under his guidance, the first truly multi-racial choir in South Africa. Too easily ignored could be the fact and breadth of his vision, expressed in a forty-year commitment to embrace music and people from every tradition. But most important of all is the reality that his humanity and musicality - the two, it seems to me, are inseparable - have enabled so many tens of thousands of people here and across the world to share in the common dream which has energised him, touched and changed them, and been brought to fulfilment in so spectacular a way right across this whole nation.
And it is in this sense so appropriate that the climax of Barry's fortieth anniversary celebrations should fall just a few days away from the tenth anniversary of South African democracy and be located in the ultimate context for all of us, which is this Eucharist. Since, at all levels, the dream Barry has most cherished – and which has shone through his work - is the Christ-like dream and vision of true freedom and equality for everyone that is modelled for us in each celebration of the Eucharist.
It has, for him, as for all South Africans, indeed been a long walk to freedom. But along the way his ministry has revealed to us the best facet of all great music-making which is its ability to show us the nature of true freedom. The catechism tells us that there are seven sacraments. But experience teaches us that there are so many more. Music is undoubtedly one of these. And if we can atune ourselves to that most demanding of all ministries - the business of real listening, of true engagement - we actually hear again in today's mass, as we have heard these past forty years, the God who addresses us, who plays his symphony of salvation in and through us, and who gives us - if we did but realise it - a sense of what ultimate redemption and freedom are like. Think back a few moments to the Kyrie from today's Nelson Mass of Haydn's, for example. What did we hear? In technical terms we experienced a sonata form structure in scale and scope not unlike a movement from one of Haydn's symphonies. But at a different level its plea for divine mercy framed and articulated so much more. For as its two distinct themes - God's and ours - were combined, so a space opened up in which tension could be resolved, conflict met and overcome, and reconciliation achieved, its dark, D minor tones finding their fulfilment in the vivaciously sparkling D major of the Gloria. And that is what all great music does. This is why it's so important and potentially life changing. Since what it offers, as the theologian and devotee of Mozart, Karl Barth, puts it, is a 'foretaste of heaven', a foretaste which John Wesley, that great admirer of Handel's Messiah-– he once saw the composer conduct the work - advanced as a 'truly converting ordinance'.
And if we give thanks for only one thing among the many for which we should give thanks today, then let it be that. Let it be for the fact that through the music-making of a great musician and human being God has addressed and continues to address us, calling us to dream his dream, showing us how wonderful the end of the journey could be for all his children, inviting us in this revelation of himself - through this foretaste of his kingdom - to be converted by what we hear, and to make God's dream come true for everyone. Since, as Barry would be the first to acknowledge, music does not exist in a cultural or a spiritual vacuum. It always points beyond itself. It is only and ever sacramental. Which means that it exists not as an escape route into some piously melodious ghetto away from reality, but rather to encourage us to live out its themes and resonances, to sing its melodies, to finish God's redemption symphony, by bringing in his kingdom of justice for all, and to do so precisely amidst the real and messy world of ethics.
An ideal, which Barry's ministry in this cathedral - with its wonderful fusion of the highest artistic endeavour and the deepest commitment to the poor and marginalized - sounds for all to hear. A truth, to which the grave of a sixteenth century Precentor of Eton - the college which produced Barry's beloved Peter Warlock - bears witness rather quaintly when it states, 'This perpetual fellow led an honest life at Eton; a moderate man whose food was beans'; - not unlike the frugality of the Smith daily diet! - 'among the virtues in which he shone, he relieved the misery of the poor, and he cultivated music.' A point, perhaps more tellingly and fittingly made through some words of the other man for whom 1964 was such a momentous year:
'I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.'
A challenge, finally encapsulated for us in this prayer of the Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel:
'Through song we climb to the highest palace. From that palace we can influence the universe and its prisons. Song is Jacob's ladder forgotten on earth by the angels. Sing and we defeat death; sing and we disarm the foe. Help us, O Lord, so to sing your praises that our hearts will turn to the oppressed in their misery and our actions will win them liberation.'
Barry, you have done that with such unstinting devotion for forty years in this, the people's cathedral, and your continuing ministry challenges each one of us to do the same. Thanks be to God.
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