Reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing (William Byrd)

IMG_7300I received an email this week telling me that today is National Ice-cream Day. I have no idea who decided this, though it was a chocolate manufacturer who told me, but I am not going to argue and after the service we will celebrate it. Something that will be particularly welcome on a hot Sunday afternoon. What could speak of summer more than ice-cream and struggling to eat it before it melts. 

A few years ago, on my sabbatical, when the temperatures were breaking records, I decided to conduct some research into which was the best ice-cream to eat. Squirty, whippy stuff was particularly bad; it put up no resistance to the power of the sun’s rays. It was the Cornetto style cones that seemed to fair best. Ice-cream brings a smile and it feels like a treat.

We need those treats every now and then, to experience the joys of life, the things which brighten and boost a sense of feeling good. This is especially important when we face the unknown and this pandemic seems to have a way of bringing surprises and setbacks. When it is a particular effort to find the joys, the rewards can be all the more.

I caught an interview yesterday with a woman who has stage 4 cancer. She has lots of bad days and can struggle to find an hour or so of energy. There are days she finds she has to break down the day into small goals and take what she can find – bigger goals just seem too unobtainable and large to tackle or believe are possible. It’s a mindset that she has had to develop and train herself to develop the habit.

We might not all be facing something so enormous, but still can need help and there are some tools we can draw on and use. One of them comes in this incredible service of Choral Evensong. It brings music in abundance and the act of singing changes our mood. After I preached at the RSCM online Welsh Festival last month, a friend sent me something written a very long time ago, by the Tudor composer William Byrd. It could have been written yesterday and there are scientific explanations behind what he wrote. It comes from the preface to his collection ‘Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie’, published in 1588. He sets down reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing. Whenever he says ‘man’, he means all people – men and women, boys and girls.

“First, it is a knowledge easily taught, and quickly learned, where there is a good master, and an apt scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

3. It doth strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to procure perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.

6. It is the only way to know where Nature has bestowed the benefit of a good voice:

which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that has it: and, in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.

7. There is not any Music of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voice is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith:

and the voice of man is chiefly to be employed to that end.

Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum.

[“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6)]

Since singing is so good a thing,

I wish all men would learn to sing.”

When the bible writers were looking for a way to express worship, praise, marvels and salvation, they naturally turned to song. Our first reading (1 Chronicles 16:23-34) began with the exhortation to ‘sing to the Lord all the earth’ and through that to tell of marvels and salvation.

The second reading, moved from compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to expressing gratitude through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, so that in whatever we do we may be thankful (Colossians 3:12-17). Singing is a balm for the soul, especially in tough times, but also when we just want to let out a burst of praise and thanksgiving. In turn it lifts us and we need that lift. We have been given voices to lift up the praises, it is in our nature to do so, and something deep about what it means to be human is missing when we don’t or are not allowed to do so. The human souls needs it and when times are tough a song in the heart and in the voice changes how we see it and how we are.

So I give thanks for “quires and places where they sing”. In the final words of our Psalm this evening, quoted by William Byrd at the end of his reasons to sing:

“Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum”

Let everything that hath breath, 

praise the Lord . (Psalm 150:6).

Sermon for the final Evensong of the Choir year, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 18th July 2021

About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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