Last Things

By Sarah Lister

Funeral organists are interlopers, strangers in the heart of family grief. We are privileged to celebrate in music the life of a loved person we have usually not met (though commonly on hearing a eulogy we wish it were otherwise). Sometimes it’s different – a man once approached me at the organ console after Evensong and handed over a list comprising three hymns, J S Bach’s St Anne fugue, and Percy Whitlock’s Fidelis. That’s what I want, he said. I’m ninety-three. You have to think about these things.

Whitlock (1903-1946) is a composer who deserves to be better known. Fidelis is one of his Four Extemporizations for organ, written in 1932 when he was Director of Music at St Stephen’s Church, Bournemouth and dedicated to his faithful (fidelis) head chorister Charles Keel. It was gratifying to hear Salix from The Plymouth Suite at the recent service for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh (of whom more later). A good introduction to Whitlock is his Complete Shorter Organ Music (OUP), the many delights of which include a hymn prelude on Darwall’s 148th and the resplendent Exultemus on Psalm 81:1-3.

Certain pieces of music endure as funeral favourites. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze (despite the latter being secular), Fauré’s Pie Jesu, and Vaughan Williams’ Rhosymedre are examples; all major key, tranquil, and consolatory. Pachelbel’s oft-requested Canon in D is one to be wary of – some of the arrangements in anthologies are over-simplified and congregations don’t hear what they are expecting. More faithful renderings are available on IMSLP (but are not easy).

The Marche funèbre is decidedly out of fashion these days, and perhaps it is too sombre a beast in an age of celebration funerals. Music lovers will think of the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata op.35 in this context, which, even if chosen, would need a very good pianist indeed to pull off (unthinkable to transfer it to organ). Alexandre Guilmant’s op. 17 Marche funèbre et chant séraphique, sparkling triumph though it is, does not capture the right tone in an era where Sinatra’s My Way was recently voted the most popular funeral song. But equally we no longer have female mourners wailing and rending their hair as they did in Ancient Greece.

When choosing processional voluntaries length is critical; in some smaller churches the aisle is so short that even Liebster Jesu must be cut. The nature of the recessional offers more flexibility, and Handel’s Dead March from Saul, if I may mention a funeral march, works well in organ arrangement and is major key and uplifting.

Perhaps more of a shame is that Purcell’s Funeral Sentences Z.860, composed for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695, are likelier to be heard in a concert setting than at local funeral services. These settings of the Burial Service from the Book of Common Prayer 1662 are some of the finest funeral music ever written. The unaccompanied, largely homophonic anthem Thou Knowest, Lord is simple and approachable by even small amateur choirs.

One of the challenges facing the itinerant organist is the variety of instruments found in parishes, cemetery chapels, crematoria, college chapels, and tiny village churches in the depths of the countryside. Adapting pieces to suit different instruments is part of the joy of being an organist; one comes across one-manual Frescobaldi organs, big Romantic monsters, Clavinovas, Hammond organs (on very bad days), well-loved instruments and some in terrible states of disrepair. Recently I was asked for an arrangement (no singer) of Bach’s aria Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen to be played on an organ whose entire pedal division was broken. And transferring The Lark Ascending to an instrument with no string stops was interesting – another time I will bring a violinist and split the fee.

Turning to funeral hymns, the choice is understandably difficult for families if no instructions have been left, particularly if they are not regular churchgoers. Decisions relayed between minister, undertaker, and organist can result in painful crossed wires, so funeral directors’ websites offer lists of traditional hymns that combine appropriate words and dignified melodies. Settings of psalm 23 such as The Lord’s my Shepherd and The King of Love my Shepherd is come up repeatedly, as do Abide with me and The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.

Hymns familiar from school days are regularly requested, like Morning has broken, Make me a channel of your peace (the prayer of St Francis of Assisi), or All things bright and beautiful. This last highlights another challenge for organists: which tune to use when the words are regularly sung to more than one? Not everyone is aware (again understandably) that hymn tunes themselves have names, and one hardly wants to ask a grieving family member to sing something down the phone. I remember once bringing Thornbury, Wolvercote, and Hatherop Castle to a service because no-one had been able to establish which setting of O Jesus, I have promised the family preferred. All things bright and beautiful is a case in point: its two melodies tend to generate strong feelings, and it doesn’t help that one of them is itself called All things bright and beautiful (the other being Royal Oak).

With certain hymns there is also a question of harmony. The tune New Britain (William Walker) is invariably used for Amazing Grace, but standard harmonisations are a mixed bag. It is not in NEH at all, and Robert Gower’s version in Common Praise is too fanciful for use at funeral services (indeed I have never heard it used anywhere). John Bell’s simple effort from The Church Hymnal is probably best, distracting least from the stirring tune. But the melody works just as well unharmonised, as recently demonstrated by Barack Obama at the funeral of Senator Clementa Pinckney.

Music chosen thematically can be particularly meaningful. I have been asked to play harvest hymns for a farmer’s funeral and campanological hymns for a bellringer – both beautiful services. Families of sports fans regularly ask for Jerusalem or You’ll never walk alone. The most stylistically eclectic service of my experience was for a sailor, whose family chose My heart will go on (from Titanic), Rod Stewart’s Sailing – both on piano, thankfully – and the hymn Eternal Father, strong to save to John Bacchus Dykes’ tune Melita. This last is a great funeral favourite. The Duke of Edinburgh, a former commander in the Royal Navy, chose this for his service, and it was sung at the funerals of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, John F Kennedy, and George H W Bush, all of whom had naval connections.

Congregational singing has been one of many sad losses due to the COVID pandemic. Singing hymns at funerals brings the congregation together and gives comfort to those who mourn. There is nothing like the thrill of a 150-strong Welsh congregation belting out Cwm Rhondda (Guide me, O thou great redeemer) or Blaenwern (Love divine, all loves excelling). Joining in with hymns is also a chance to sing some cracking lyrics: when else, apart from at a rugby match, do you get to sing Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! (Jerusalem)? Who doesn’t enjoy the crystal fountain and the fiery cloudy pillar in Cwm Rhondda, the verdant pastures and food celestial of The King of love, and the still, small voice of calm of Repton? Not to mention And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase, and her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths of peace (I vow to thee my country).

Over recent years the role of the organ in funeral services has become increasingly marginalised. It is not unusual to find that all that is required is one hymn, usually Crimond, and that the rest of the music is on CD or mp3 – unfortunate for those of us markedly better at playing the organ than working the CD player. In certain situations – cemetery chapels where the Clavinova’s organ sound is not loud enough to support hymn singing – it is perhaps understandable that My Way or Time To Say Goodbye are preferred.

Despite this we cling to a small clutch of twenty or so hymns that, whether through television or through singing at funerals and weddings, almost everybody knows. How Great Thou Art, Lord of all hopefulness, Dear Lord and Father of mankind and others continue to provide us with a nationally unifying body of song. It would be a great shame to lose it.

Sarah Lister is an organist living and working in Oxford. As Harriet Lister she moonlights as a writer on subjects as diverse as music, miracles, poetry, and paper clips.