In the summer of 2000, we moved our family to London from our home in Rye, New York, to accommodate my husband’s job transfer. Our family, which included teenage daughters, moved into a neighborhood whose parish church had a very interesting musical history – St. Mary’s Primrose Hill. Several hymns and anthems we know today have come to us from St. Mary’s: For All the Saints, In the Bleak Midwinter, With a Voice of Singing, Come Down, O Love Divine. It was there in the early 20th century that Vicar Percy Dearmer worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw to compile The English Hymnal, 1906.
To read more about this parish church, a good place to start is St. Mary’s web site (http://www.stmarysprimrosehill.com/). There are pages about the history of the church, about Percy Dearmer and The English Hymnal, and about a CD recorded by the choir, “St. Mary’s Primrose Hill Tradition.” It is worthwhile to read the CD notes (at http://www.stmarysprimrosehill.com/the-primrose-hill-tradition-vol-1/). Copies of the CD can be ordered, as well (see http://www.stmarysprimrosehill.com/recordings/).
Living only a few blocks from the church, I became involved in the parish, joining the choir in time to participate in the CD recording. I volunteered in the office where I learned fine points of English spelling and punctuation in order to write correspondence. I led Thursday evening prayer that commenced with ringing the bell (which had a few cobwebs) and ended with writing my initials in a book to record who had led the prayer and how many souls prayed with me (usually there were several).
Quite a few things impressed me at St. Mary’s. I listened to music in the same acoustic of Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Shaw, and I heard the William Hill organ on which Martin Shaw played. The entire congregation was quite engaged and sincere in their participation in worship. In spite of the professional perception of the liturgy and music, there was a sort of do it yourself function with what was going on. In the daily life of the congregation, art, beauty, and appreciation of the natural world seemed to be reflected.
If you visit St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, London, notice the figure of St. John on the rood. It is carved in the likeness of Percy Dearmer. Next door to the church on Elsworthy Road is a plaque on the house where Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms concerts, lived. Also worth a visit is Thaxted Parish Church in Thaxted, outside of London, where Gustav Holst had a cottage and worked in the church. The vicar at Thaxted, Conrad Noel, worked under Percy Dearmer, and there is a marvelous chandelier in the church designed for St. Mary’s Primrose Hill but never installed there. While you are climbing the hill to the Thaxted Parish Church you could hum Holst’s hymn tune THAXTED (I Vow to Thee My Country).
Julie Statius-Muller lives in Stamford, Connecticut, and is a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church. She conducts the Chorale of the Schubert Club of Fairfield County, founded in 1910, and sang in the Festival of Church Music in Darien, Connecticut, on October 29, which included With a Voice of Singing, the impetus for this article.