SERMON ON THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF JEAN LANGLAIS GIVEN BY MR COLIN SPINKS, DIRECTOR OF MUSIC ST MARY LE STRAND
18 FEBRUARY 2007
Some words of St Paul:
“Now we see, as in a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I would like to express our thanks to Father William for allowing us to come and share what has become, both for me and many members of the choir, an exciting and important interest.
As the name Jean Langlais may be unfamiliar to most, I need first to explain a little about his extraordinary life and career. I will also talk about the origins of the Langlais Festival, with which this choir is closely connected and helped to establish in 2005, and share some stories behind the music we are offering today. And finally I would like to consider what we might learn from his life in the light of the Gospel we have just heard.
Jean Langlais was born in 1907 in the small village of La Fontenelle in Brittany, Northern France, the son of a quarry worker. He became totally blind at the age of two. Thanks to the generosity of a cousin in the army, he was able to attend the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (the National Institute for Blind Children) in Paris, where his musical ability was soon recognised. In 1927 he won a place at the Paris Conservatoire to study organ under Marcel Dupré and graduated with a Premier Prix. He studied composition under Paul Dukas and Improvisation with Charles Tournemire. In 1931 he won the “Friends of the Organ” interpretation and improvisation competition, the start of a glittering career as an international concert artist. He was appointed Organist of Ste Clotilde in Paris in 1945 and remained there until an illness in 1987 forced his retirement. He died in 1991. His enormous output as a composer included not only works for organ and sacred choral music but also secular song, chamber and orchestral music. Along with Messiaen and Duruflé he was one of the key figures of the French Organ School of the 20th Century.
Back in 2003, one of our sopranos, Brenda Dean, decided, like many other British people, to purchase a house in France. Unlike many British people, Brenda took a keen interest in local culture. Unlike any other British person, on discovering that her new village was the birthplace of an important musical figure, she decided to establish a Music Festival in his memory. As a result of her initiative and determination the first Langlais Festival took place in August 2005 with the Wingrave Singers performing concerts in Bazouges-la-Pérouse, Dol Cathedral and, along with a local choir and a new childrens’ choir (formed by Brenda), at the Parish Church of La Fontenelle. A year later, the Festival expanded in scope with the participation of another French choir, the choir of All Saints’ Church Northampton, the international concert organist Jane Watts and Langlais’ widow, Marie-Louise (who I should point out was 36 years younger than her husband). I will never forget conducting the final item, Langlais’ arrangement of a Breton folksong, with over 100 singers and an audience of over 350. This in a church whose capacity was approximately 240!
Last Thursday, 15 February, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Langlais. Last Sunday, Mass was sung in the village church to commemorate the occasion, and on the day itself a very moving service of Compline. Last night, the first Langlais Festival Concert on English soil took place in the village of Wing, just down the road from where this choir is based, and finally another Mass this morning at St Mary le Strand. It is particularly appropriate to remember Langlais in a church dedicated to Our Lady, as he was particularly devoted to the Blessed Virgin. The introit we sang reflects this devotion: “Almighty God has clothed me with virtue and made my life pure”. Venite et Audite (Come and hear) is dedicated to Marie Bigot, described as “the 52nd miracle of Lourdes”, a blind woman who regained her sight after visiting that shrine. The Mass we are singing is probably Langlais best known choral work, a favourite of many choirs in this country. The Communion Motet, Tantum Ergo, has its own poignant story to tell. At the start of the Second World War, Langlais and his family moved out of Paris to the coast near St Malo and on the very day that German soldiers occupied the village, he was at work on this piece. Profound adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is combined with steadfast defiance to maintain the Catholic Faith in the very face of the enemy.
What lessons, then, can be drawn from this remarkable life? As a devout Roman Catholic with a special devotion to Our Lady, it is perhaps surprising that Langlais never followed Marie Bigot to the shrine at Lourdes to seek a cure for his blindness. It was a question often asked of him. His unchanging reply is striking: “If I could see like everyone else, I would have inevitably followed in my father’s footsteps as a stone-cutter. One must believe that the Virgin Mary had other plans for me, which came about because of my blindness. So may her will be done…” Had Langlais not been blind, he would not have received his musical education at the Institute in Paris and may never have touched a musical instrument. Langlais’ talk of Marian providence may sound superstitious to 21st Century ears. The self-help books which proliferate in our day prefer to think in terms of “turning every negative into a positive” or “seeing every setback as a potential opportunity”. Whichever way we look at it, however, we can be inspired to look afresh at areas of our own life which appear “blind” and barren and see in them not weaknesses but rather strengths. Such an examination is neither mediaeval superstition nor meaningless psycho-babble but rather reflects the central dynamic of the Gospel: as we have read in the Gospels in recent weeks, in social embarrassment, water is made wine, amidst disease and sickness, God’s healing power is revealed; as we draw towards Lent and Passiontide we come to learn that in the darkness of the Cross lies the triumph over death.
Although blindness was included in the Virgin’s “plans” for Langlais, he could not have made the rise from rural peasantry to international artist without an act of great generosity from the cousin who contributed so much financially towards his education. Without that, a life of dependence on those scarcely able to support themselves was his lot. For Langlais to reach his full potential as a man, he needed the support of this benefactor and naturally remained grateful to him all his life. The implications for us are clear: to recognise humanity’s dependence on one another, firstly in expressing our gratitude for those who have made the sacrifices, financial or otherwise, which have enabled us to reach our own potential, and secondly by being ever ready to recognise, however hidden, the potential in those around us, particularly the young, and doing what we can to encourage and foster growth. This is particularly true in the family context, and in the educational sector, but in any work place, the best management will seek to emulate Christ’s ability to draw the very best from the “frail earthen vessels” who became his followers.
Thirdly a modern parable. Jean Langlais and his great friend Olivier Messiaen had decided to go to the Opera in Paris to see Debussy’s ravishing opera Pelias et Melisande. They would attend every single day of the week. The first night, Messiaen was so engrossed in describing how the stained glass of La Trinité had inspired his improvisation at Sunday Mass that they missed their stop on the Metro. The second night, Messiaen was again deep in reverie, this time about the bird-song that had inspired his latest composition. Again they missed their stop. By Wednesday, Langlais had decided that it would have to be his responsibility to count the stops carefully to ensure their safe arrival.
When preparing this sermon, I was struck by the incongruity of speaking about a blind musician after hearing the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration. For there is no getting away from the fact that what happened to Jesus on that occasion was primarily for the disciples a visual spectacle. His purpose in leading them all the way up to the top of the mountain was in order to see something. But of course, the disciples did not grasp the full meaning of what they saw. That much is clear from Peter’s extraordinarily ‘missing-the-point’ outburst: “Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah”. In fact, human sight, with its inbuilt limitations, was at this stage an obstacle to full understanding. Just like Messiaen in my parable, Peter is so dazzled by sights and sounds that he completely fails to see or forgets the purpose of Jesus’ earthly journey, and his own calling to that mission. The Ancient World was well aware of the special qualities of those without sight. In the tragedies of Ancient Greece appears a prophet called Teiresias who is blind, yet able to see the truth behind situations and the truth about man’s true nature. He is the one who is able to see that Oedipus has violated the laws of nature by killing his father and marrying his mother. On a more wholesome note, those of you for whom Wednesday of last week was an important occasion may know that Cupid was, by tradition, also blind. Another case of the unsighted leading us beyond the distractions of the purely visual. The question for the Church today is this: are we too entranced by “visions”, not only the bright lights of the secular city, but also perhaps too wrapped up in the ritualism of the church, the beauty of its architecture, even the splendour of its music, or on the other hand, too engrossed in the minutiae of Biblical study, argument over doctrine, too keen to promote, like Peter, and dear old Messiaen, our own wit and cleverness, that we lose sight of our Way, Truth and Life and our destiny and calling? Just like the Transfiguration of Christ in our Gospel narrative, all these things, our ritual, the beauty of our churches, our music, landscape and the natural world, as well as our study of Scripture and even prayer need to be seen not as self-sufficient spectacles in their own right, to be gazed at from the comfort of our “three tents” as Peter would have it, but rather as windows of that heavenly reality to which we are called.
Last Thursday, at the end of Compline in the village where Langlais was born one hundred years ago, as we processed from the church to the house of his birth, we sang his setting of these words, which illustrate perfectly how our vision of beauty is but an invitation to partake more fully in the body of Christ and show his glory in the world:
“Lord, we have seen your glory in the face of your Christ, full of grace and truth: make us live in him, full of love, and the world will see the fruits of your victory.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.