Music Sacra eagerly awaited at Hampstead Parish Church

PUBLISHED: 11:51 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

BY MICHAEL WHITE If you ve ever done a Nile cruise or the chateaux of the Loire, you ll know that part of the experience tends to be the son et lumiere – the sound and light show that retells the history of an ancient site in music, theatre, spectacle an


If you've ever done a Nile cruise or the chateaux of the Loire, you'll know that part of the experience tends to be the son et lumiere - the sound and light show that retells the history of an ancient site in music, theatre, spectacle and (as it always seems) narration by Sian Phillips.

Well, the son et lumiere is about to come to Hampstead.

Although it won't be on the scale of Amenhotep's Karnak or Renaissance palaces (no histrionics from Ms Phillips either), it does promise music, theatre and spectacle - to recount the 1,000-year history of Hampstead Parish Church and its surrounding community.

Entitled Music Sacra, it plays twice at the end of this month and has been put together as a showcase for the theatre and music organisations attached to the church.

This makes it sound like an amateur show. But a fair proportion of the church-based Hampstead Players are, in fact, professionally involved in London theatre - and the music at the church involves professionals too. So it's a serious piece of work as well as a labour of love.

According to its creators, architectural historian Bill Riseboro and musicologist Gill Perrin, it upsets some of the settled assumptions about life in Hampstead - starting with the idea that this has always been a place of comfort, privilege and wealth.

"When you go right back in time," says Perrin, "as far as Domesday, you find that the manor of Hampstead was actually pretty undesirable.

"The land was then held by the monks of Westminster and managed by a steward who lived in what is now Frognal Lane.

"But it was poor land. And when it passed on to secular ownership, the lords of the manor never wanted to live here.

"That successive generations of these lords were absentee was a decisive factor in the way Hampstead developed - or rather, didn't.

"For a long while it stayed poor, with a high percentage of its residents living in wretched conditions. It wasn't until the Gainsborough family came along that things started to change."

The Gainsboroughs - as in Gainsborough Gardens - were non-resident as well. But they took enough interest to market the waters of the Chalybeate Spring, in what is now Well Walk, largely as a means of funding a trust to help the local poor.

With their efforts, Chalybeate turned Hampstead into a fashionable spa along the lines of Bath and Buxton. The truth, however, of 18th century spas was in some ways closer to Las Vegas than Jane Austen - they were glitzy, racy and attracted every kind of swindler, cheat and crook - they made money. In Hampstead, this paid for the handsome 1740s development that is Church Row with St John-at-Hampstead at one end of it.

The church replaced a pre-existing structure which had, in one form or another, been there since 1200. So that has allowed Gill to start the music of her entertainment with a good dose of plainsong.

But the sad truth is that, as a poor parish, Hampstead then passed through several hundred years with poor music - at best a Thomas Hardy-esque rustic band in the gallery.

So she's had to cheat slightly, illustrating the Tudor and Restoration years with works by Tallis, Purcell and the like which do indeed sum up those years but would never have been heard in the then equivalent of NW3.

It wasn't until the 1840s, when the church was enlarged and got itself a proper organ, that the musical tradition at St John's really began.

It began decisively, through the cleverness of appointing a young man called Henry Willis as the organist. More an organ-builder than a player, Willis turned out to be one of the most celebrated builders in Europe.

It was he who designed the instrument at St John's, which has been adapted and improved over the years but remains fundamentally his work.

With an impressive organ, modelled on examples in the great Parisian basilicas, Hampstead at last had a basis for substantial music-making. This took it into the 20th century and the arrival of its famously fiery choirmaster Martindale Sidwell - a man of bad temper but good effect who raised the choir to something like cathedral standards.

From that point in her storytelling, Gill has had so much genuine Hampstead music to draw on - including works by composers like Elgar and Walton who were technical if not actual parishioners- that she hasn't had to cheat at all.

But music apart, the pageant-like entertainment she and Bill have devised also presents scenes from Hampstead's wider history. Social issues aren't ignored, as the poor of Hampstead are duly noted squeezing into the side-benches of St John's (where they couldn't afford pew rents) or filing into the bath house at Flask Walk.

"We get a lot into this evening," says Perrin. "Buildings, people, problems - it's all there."

This includes the way people rallied against the villanous 19th century landowner Thomas Maryon Wilson when he tried to build on the Heath and stopped him - a decisive statement of the Hampstead spirit.

But there's Hampstead spirit in the rationale behind the show itself.

"We had two separate objectives," Gill explains. "First, to give people some idea of the rich musical life of the parish church and what they can hear any Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon just by walking through the door and sitting down to listen. It's just there for anyone - a gift, and really rather wonderful.

"The other is to improve the crypt, which is used round the clock by all sorts of local interest groups in Hampstead - children, counselling, welfare, drama, dance - but badly needs upgrading with better facilities.

"So we're trying to get the money together for that, which isn't easy in this economic climate, although we're making every effort.

"Musica Sacra is part of the fundraising and, as such, it's something which doesn't just celebrate the past but looks to the future.

"St John's has been serving the community here for a thousand years. We want that to go on."

Musica Sacra is on Saturday January 31 at 7.30pm and Sunday February 1 at 6pm at Hampstead Parish Church, Church Row, Hampstead.

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