My son Aidan is getting married next month. He and his bride will have their nuptial Mass in Cumnock, my old home town in Ayrshire. To be honest, the call back to the ancestral homelands was more to do with having their wedding reception at the astonishingly impressive Dumfries House, on the edge of the little town, which has become a kind of wedding Mecca in recent years.
Dumfries House is one of Britain’s most beautiful stately homes, owned by the Bute family until 2007, when it was saved for the nation by an intervention led by Prince Charles. It combines the stunning Neoclassical architecture of Robert Adam with bespoke furniture made by Thomas Chippendale.
John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, converted to Catholicism in 1868. He later built a church in Cumnock, St John the Evangelist, to a design by William Burges, for the growing local Catholic community. My grandparents were married there, as were my parents in 1958. I was baptised there in 1959, made my First Communion in 1965 and played its organ as a teenager. There will be a real sense of completing a circle when Aidan and Kleida are married there by Fr Lawrence Lew OP in August.
Kleida is Albanian. Her family arrived in Glasgow at the turn of the century. Nominally Catholic, they had to keep their faith secret all through the communist era of Enver Hoxha. Priests and Religious were martyred, including Fr Shtjefën Kurti who was executed by firing squad in 1971 for baptising a baby.
Kleida herself was baptised by Fr Lew last year at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in St Dominic’s church in north London – a poetic and glorious reversal of the Marxist evils visited on Albanian Christians in recent times.
If their engagement party is anything to go by, there will be lot of incredibly intricate Balkan folk dancing to mark the occasion. The fact that I will be invited to participate in this in full MacMillan tartan regalia and a white fez on my head fills me with trepidation.
The young couple asked me to make an organ transcription of a famous Albanian folk dance, Kenge e Krushqve (“Song of the In-laws”), to be used as the wedding recessional from the altar on the day. We have one of the finest organists in Scotland, Chris Nickol, to play this. But even so, a moment of cultural diversity and fusion (confusion) awaits us all. What the 3rd Marquess of Bute might make of it looking down from heaven at his old church, I can only guess.
The 3rd Marquess was determined to set St John’s up as a centre of excellence and focus for Catholic liturgical music. What this meant in 1880s Ayrshire, I’m not sure, but visitors to the church in the early part of the 20th century would comment favourably on the care taken in the choral preparations for the liturgy.
My grandfather George Loy, a coal miner all his life, was a member of the choir there from the 1920s to the 1950s, and was full of stories of how well-drilled, practised and experienced the singers were. He gave me a lot of the sheet music that was used – everything from Mozart to Edwardian Catholic piety – so I was able to get a glimpse into the musical and social life of Cumnock’s Catholics in earlier generations.
You can imagine the thirst that these hard men of toil, who spent their entire working lives underground, had for beauty – which my grandfather found in the Church and in music. He had been a euphonium player in local colliery bands, got me my first cornet and took me to band rehearsals as a boy.
In retrospect, his impact on me was huge. I always think of him (and the old 3rd Marquess) during some of the Cumnock Tryst concerts which now take place annually in St John’s.
Aidan and Kleida have kept me busy these last few months writing quite a bit of music for their wedding. Aidan is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde, so I invited my old pal Alan Tavener, the music director of Cappella Nova as well as the university’s chamber choir, to bring his singers to the nuptial Mass.
I have set two excerpts from the fourth chapter of the Song of Solomon. “Behold, you are beautiful my love” will be sung at the Offertory and “Until the day breathes” will accompany Kleida as she processes to the altar with her father, Ilir Bajrami.
The other in-laws have been successful in getting their visas to travel from Tirana. St John the Evangelist, pray for them; Blessed Shtjefën Kurti, pray for them.
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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