By Fr. Graeme Napier
Thus, down the ages, sings St. Irenaeus, the second-century bishop from the little Aegean sea town of Smyrna who had heard the preaching of the soon-to-be-martyred Polycarp—a disciple of John the gospel-maker, to whom St. John’s in the Village is dedicated.
Before I went to Oxford to study mathematics and philosophy I had been blessed by the wit and wisdom of fine musicians—choir directors, cellists, organists, and others—who helped me delve into the deep mathematical structures of harmony and counterpoint, and arrive at that branchy-between-towers, bell-swarmed, river-round-land town with a Licentiate from the Royal Schools of Music. Such musical literacy, which is really nothing more than the language that articulates what everyone feels and senses in the beauty and power of music, was a gateway and key to avenues and laneways of life—both interior and exterior—perhaps not so easily openable otherwise: the common camaraderie fostered by folk song in a college bar; entrance into the world of drama and stage-craft through opera; the hallooing of chants with rowers by the river (breaking down the division between heady and hearty); the solace of sorrowful songs on a dark and dank winter’s day; the protest songs against apartheid; the wonder, love, and praise of the glories of the sacred choral tradition in a humble college chapel. All this fully-aliveness thrived alongside the sounds of song and string long before we found out from neurologists that choral music is the best thing you can give to your brain.
There are so many things churches and other communities can do to foster human flourishing in their neighborhoods, but one of the simplest is to fill their spaces with music of all kinds— sacred and secular, ancient and modern—which ordinary people with limited or no financial means can access, enjoy, participate in, and be transported by.
I love that St. John’s in the Village, where I have recently begun to serve as parish priest, is always awash with music. Even in the summer, when the children’s delicate chorister voices have echoed off down to the beach for the holidays and the professional choir enjoys its well-earned feet-up fallow, the sounds of myriad musics still resound within the simple beauty of the sanctuary—from Joni Mitchell songs to the timeless strains of Gregorian chant, and through the relentless beat of the baroque in Bach’s exquisite twice-blest Double Violin Concerto to songs from the pen of Porter and the genius of Gershwin. August also has its summer plate full of music: from Italian songs and arias to outdoor plainsong and the swing of Viennese waltzes, and from Bach to the late Leonard Bernstein whose 100th birthday will be celebrated this month.
Music—the food of love—for music’s sake is surely enough by itself. But here at St. John’s musicians give gratis of their time and talent for the commonweal: violinists from Julliard supporting this summer’s youth at the Music & Science School in St John’s courtyard, Songs for a Summer’s Evening sung for refugees seeking new lives for themselves and their families, and concerts that are free to seniors so that all Villagers can be fed freely by the food of love. This is where the language of music, the milk of human kindness, and the beauty of holiness form a harmony that is truly three parts vied and multiplied. As our patron, John the gospel-maker, knows dearly—we are here “that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The Reverend Graeme Napier is the Rector of St. John’s in the Village. He holds qualifications from the Royal Schools of Music (UK) and degrees in mathematics, philosophy, and theology from the University of Oxford. His addresses on “Faith & The Arts” are delivered on each Sunday in August at 11:00 a.m.