“Vanità di vanità, ogni cos’ e vanità,” we sang to a hauntingly sad melody. St Philip Neri used to make his novices sing this song and we, as their 20th-Century counterparts, were taught it by Dr Mary Remnant for performance in one of her lecture recitals at the London Oratory. The evening was billed as “The Music of St Philip’s Oratory”, and like all of her recitals it brought to life the musical soundscape of an aspect of Catholic culture and devotion. Other evenings gave voice to the music of the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela, or the Crusades.
As a novice in my early 20s with limited capacity to grasp the vanity of all things, I became a fervent devotee of Mary Remnant’s uniquely engaging lecture-recitals and their distinctive content. I was sad to hear of her death in May, and moved to reminisce by her obituary in last month’s Herald.
We tend to think of historical sources in terms of artefacts, and therefore as something visible. Mary Remnant’s work made history live in sound. Her research included trips (some of them pilgrimages) to ancient cathedrals and churches in search of paintings or frescoes. The point of this was to have replicas reconstructed on which she would demonstrate the music they would have played. So the paintings she looked for might feature King David with a harp, angels holding musical instruments, or St Cecilia with her organ.
It’s difficult to describe the kind of gestalt experience of these lecture-recitals. Mary combined erudition with a down-to-earth enthusiasm which was infectious. Each lecture was also a musical tour de force as she bowed rebecs and plucked harps and psalteries, fingered gitterns, blew flutes and horns, chimed bells and struck drums and tambours, often whilst simultaneously playing the pipes with her other hand.
Best of all was the organistrum, an instrument which was like a hurdy-gurdy, cranked with a handle and producing a melody using stops on its neck. Occasionally the plethora of instruments would prove too much and she would have to rummage through part of her collection, spread out on a table, to find a plectrum. Or she would say: “Now where’s my psaltery?” With great verve Mary would launch into a medieval hymn on a small organ whose bellows she had to pump (slightly frantically), and just when you wondered if you mightn’t have strayed into a Joyce Grenfell sketch, there would emerge a sound so distinctive it was literally a voice from the past, its tuneful simplicity instantly calling you back to an age of devotion and faith.
She had a loyal following – an intriguing set in themselves. One devotee, at a recital in the Purcell Room, sat wearing a cat rather in the manner of a fur stole; indeed, it could have been mistaken for one had it not moved periodically. Another fan had booked two seats: one for herself, the second for a large statue of Our Lady.
But people came because they heard the tantalising echoes of an age of faith. Mary herself was less professor and more pilgrim, sharing her delight in discovery, speaking of Our Lady and the angels as self-evidently real, even as she brought to life the music which honoured them.
The Preacher is right to say that all is vanity, but so is the psalmist who says, “My Redeemer, I will thank you on the harp.” Thanks to Mary Remnant, I know how both should sound.