awaiting publication by Gonzaga Music Ltd
A tiny dirge for diversity
In the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London there is a glass case containing a handbell which was donated to the parish in 1605 by one Robert Dome (or possibly John Doe, which would be deliciously apt) on condition that it be rung at midnight by the clerk of St. Sepulchre’s outside the cell of any prisoner condemned to die on Newgate gallows on the morrow. I rather doubt the condemned gentlemen appreciated Mr Dome (or Doe’s) generosity very much. The verses engraved on the Execution Bell (as it is called) were read aloud to the hapless prisoner while the bell was tolled, offering him “wholesome advice” as he lay shivering with terror in his cell.
I have admired these verses for years (despite the incomplete third couplet), awed by the knowledge that when they were engraved on the bell, Shakespeare’s Hamlet had only recently had its first production. For some years, Peter Broadbent of the Joyful Company of Singers had suggested that I make a setting of them; I did so in 2017, encouraged by a commission-fee which contributed to my liquidity in a literal and alcoholic rather than financial sense, and which echoed the twelve strokes of midnight – namely, a dozen bottles of wine.
It seems apt that a Dirge should be sung for the fate of St Sepulchre’s. This beautiful London church has for years borne the proud title of the Musicians’ Church (just as St Paul’s Covent Garden is the Actors’ Church). Now that the Parish Council of St. Sepulchre’s has banned non-religious music from its cloisters, we can only mourn the death of yet another piece of our culture. However, St Sepulchre’s glory may yet return. Parish Councils and vicars come and go; and it is worth noting that John Rogers, a previous incumbent at St Sepulchre’s, was burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. But we don’t go in for that sort of thing now, do we? Of course not.
“All you that in’the condemnèd hole do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all, and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves; in time repent,
And when St Sepulchre’s Bell in’the morning tolls.
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.”
PAST TWELVE O’CLOCK
(12 double-stroke tolls of the Bell)