Oliver Tarney's 'A Prayer of Saint Richard of Chichester'

A Prayer of Saint Richard of Chichester 

The prayer of St Richard of Chichester is possibly the most famous thing about this man who, after difficult formative years (his parents both dying young), went on to be a chancellor of Oxford University and Bishop of Chichester.

I was drawn to this text for a number of reasons. First, the location of the premiere in Worcester College chapel made a connection with Oxford University irresistible. I have always been struck by the text since singing Martin How’s charming setting of the modernised words, Day by day. I remember with fondness that we used to sing it frequently in my parish choir in Morecambe. My setting of the piece was first performed in a remembrance-tide concert marking 100 years since the start of World War 1. I have always thought of these words as a statement of discipleship, which I found to be a powerful idea to explore within this context.

The piece starts as though it was already going on when we joined it: as if opening a door on the dying Richard’s bed chamber, with all the great and the good standing about, and he prayed:

Gratias tibi ago, Domine Jesu Christe,
de omnibus beneficiis quae mihi praestitisti;
pro poenis et opprobriis, quae pro me pertulisti;
propter quae planctus ille lamentabilis vere tibi competebat.
Non est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.

[I thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the blessings you have shown me;
for the punishment and reproach you endured for me;
on account of which that lamentable cry was yours:
“There is no sorrow like my sorrow.”]

The standard English version is:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,

May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

This triplet at the end (the most well-known bit) seems to have been crafted anonymously some time after, and so seemed problematic. However, I chose to imagine that as Richard lay dying on April 3rd 1253, this triplet was not spoken by him, but was Heaven’s song reaching out to greet him (almost like the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ of the Sanctus). This is why these words are sung by distant, ‘Heavenly’ voices of a quartet who often sing short fragments heard intermittently, and often seem at variance with the main choir. I have likened it to an old radio, sitting in the corner of a room, occasionally crackling into life with the sounds of a distant world.

The words that Richard is said to have uttered on his death bed are more gritty than the modernised version I remember from childhood. They speak of pain and sacrifice, and I felt it important to reflect this. The piece ends as illusively as it beginnings, with a single note fading to nothing, as though we close the door of the bed-chamber again on that scene of transcendence, faith, and true discipleship.

Oliver Tarney is one of Sansara's Associate Composers.

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