By Graham Kings
“Hi Will, your film on Bach’s Art of Fugue, with Christoph Wolff and George Ritchie, was extraordinary.”
“How about making a short film linking Christopher Wren, who died 300 years ago, with seven new anthems, on seven poems, on seven paintings, on seven texts of the Bible?”
Thus began my first phone conversation with Will Fraser, founder of Fugue State Films, March 9.
“Sounds interesting. When, where, and who?”
“Wednesday June 14, 2023, 6:30 p.m., at St. Stephen Walbrook.
“Wren’s church, next to Mansion House?
“Yep. Built using his rejected plans for St. Paul’s Cathedral. Andrew Earis will be conducting St. Stephen Walbrook’s Choral Scholars.”
“And the seven anthems?”
“By Tristan Latchford, a 26-year-old Cambridge composer. A world-premiere.”
“And the paintings?
“Silvia Dimitrova, a Bulgarian artist based in Bath, painted seven over 17 years.
“Who commissioned them?
“My wife, Alison, and I.”
“Where are they now?”
“At our home in Cambridge. Seven women in the Bible: Sarah, Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Magdalene, Lydia and Priscilla.”
“And the poems?”
“My poems, expounding the paintings and the biblical texts, on which they are based.”
“Can I hear the anthems online?”
“Yep, at Harmonicham.com.”
“Thanks. I’ll get back to you.”
Pause. A bit later:
“OK. Let’s raise some money to do it.”
A memorable conversation. I had not realized Will was interested in architecture as well as music and film and that he was planning to make a film on Choral Evensong.
It all began with my 50th birthday in 2003. Ali said she would like to commission our friend Silvia Dimitrova to paint a subject of my choice. I chose the face of Mary Magdalene, as she heard her name spoken by the risen Christ on the first Easter Day (John 20). Silvia came to our party, at St. Mary’s Vicarage, Islington, and unveiled it. She had added Jesus, two angels, trees, and the empty tomb.
In 2009, Silvia painted Lydia, a dealer in purple goods in Philippi (Acts 16), for my consecration as Bishop of Sherborne, at Westminster Abbey. In 2013 Priscilla, a key colleague of St. Paul (Acts 18), arrived, followed by Sarah, the mother of a multitude, in 2015 (Gen. 18), Miriam, the prophet, in 2017 (Ex. 15), Ruth the Moabite, in 2019 (Ruth 1-4), and Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia, in 2020 (Esther 1-10).
Silvia reflected the faces of my parents in the portraits of Sarah and Abraham, and the faces of our three daughters resonate with the countenances of Ruth, Miriam, and Esther. Alison and I worked with Silvia on the theology of the paintings, and I then wrote poems on each of them, which were published, with others, in Nourishing Connections (Canterbury Press, 2020).
In September 2021, the paintings were at Chester Cathedral as part of the “Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions” exhibition. In June 2022, they were in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, for a retreat of over 750 Anglican bishops from around the world, before the Lambeth Conference.
In 2019, during lunch at St. Chad’s College, Durham, the principal, Margaret Masson, had introduced me to Tristan Latchford, the director of music. After two hours looking at photos of the paintings and considering the poems, Tristan said he would like to write anthems on each of them. They formed, with other works, part of his Ph.D. thesis in composition at The Johns Hopkins University this year. The Church Times interviewed Silvia, Tristan, and me for a podcast in October 2020.
In Baltimore, in 2022, Tristan formed his own choir and record label, both called Harmonicham, and recorded his first CD, Celebrating Women in the Bible.
He then wrote the music to my words, “Elizabeth the Gracious,” which was sung first at St. Bartholomew the Great Church, London, on September 18, 2022, the eve of the State Funeral of the Queen. We have also collaborated on an anthem celebrating the Coronation of King Charles, “Manifold and Majestic,” which elucidates the “democratization” of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The link with St. Stephen’s Walbrook occurred when Phillip Dawson, an ordinand training for the priesthood in London, who ministers there, came for a supervision with me on the liturgy of the Kenyan Service of Holy Communion. After lunch, Phillip listened to Tristan’s CD and suggested discussing a premiere of the anthems with Andrew Earis, director of music at St Stephen’s, who is also director of music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and a producer for BBC Radio 4.
We had four modes: biblical text, painting, poem, music. All we needed was a fifth mode, film. On March 8, I watched a favorite DVD of mine: the medici.tv film of Jordi Savall conducting Bach’s B Minor Mass at the Abbey of Fontfroide, Southern France. I was amazed, again, at how the film illustrated the profundity of the music, performed by a small, international choir and orchestra, with the architecture of the abbey.
The next morning, I Googled Bach and film and found Fugue State Films. Unusually, the website had a mobile phone number. I phoned Will Fraser, and we had our fifth mode.
Dr. Graham Kings, in retirement in Cambridge, is an honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Ely. Tickets for the concert on June 14 are available through Eventbrite and the livestream will be on St. Stephen Walbrook. Anyone wishing to donate towards the cost of the film may give here — using dropdown menu “14 June Film.”
Oh, Graham, how I wish I could be at St Stephen’s in June! This sounds marvelous. I so many thanks for making me aware of the film on Art of Fugue, which is music that touches my soul at a very deep level.