New music commission for St Giles’ harks back to 900 years of history
Published on 24 October 2023
A new choral work which has been commissioned as part of St Giles' Cathedral's 900th anniversary is being performed for the very first time on Saturday 28 October during a public concert.
Helen Grime's new Missa brevis premieres at the iconic building, which is thought to have been founded by King David I in 1124, in the run up to celebrations next year.
Meaning short mass, the Missa brevis is the fourth of five new works that have been released annually since 2020, and lasts about 15 minutes, making it the longest.
The compositions collectively form a choir book, a format that is in keeping with the hundreds of years of sacred music associated with the historic Edinburgh church.
Michael Harris, who is Master of the Music at St Giles', explains why he had the idea for the project:
"A choir book has various connotations, because it can just be a collection of pieces, or part books for singers.
"There are some famous Mediaeval and Renaissance examples but there was also one for the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen which was done nationally.
"I have been always quite keen on expanding the repertoire of music composed by Scottish composers for the Church.
"So this seemed a good thing to do for such a momentous occasion as the 900th anniversary of the founding of St Giles'."
Due to the Scottish Reformation in 1560, when the Church of Scotland moved away from accompanied singing during services until the 19th century, Mr Harris is only the fourth person in his role, with very few records surviving of the music from when St Giles' was a Catholic place of worship.
Amazingly one such record to survive is a Papal Bull from 1467 issued in Rome, when St Giles' was made into a collegiate church, which includes a stipulation that there should be a certain number of singers in the choir.
"Collegiate churches had canons who were basically employed to say prayers and masses for anybody who paid them, quite often associated with a rich family," Mr Harris says.
However, it wasn't until 1877 that St Giles' brought back musical accompaniment to worship.
"The church appointed a 14 year-old boy who took the harmonium and a year later, an organ was installed and John Hartley then stayed until 1923," he adds.
"And the tradition here, since around the beginning of the 20th century, if not slightly before, has been very much of a very rich style of choral music."
Speaking about the commission, Ms Grime, who has an international career as a composer but is originally from Edinburgh, said:
"It's a huge honour to be taking part in this celebration of St Giles Cathedral's 900th anniversary.
"As someone who grew up singing in the choir of Old Saint Paul's, not far from Saint Giles', choral music has always resonated deeply for me.
"I can't think of a better setting for my first major sacred choral work."
Funding for the project came from the National Lottery through Creative Scotland, the fundraising of the Friends of Music of St Giles', and a grant from the Church Hymnary Trust.
These days the choir of 30 singers, regularly performs in St Giles' and elsewhere.
Other composers which will feature at the performance range from 16th century William Byrd to the more modern Vaughan Williams, spanning approximately 500 years of music.
Rev Dr George Whyte, Interim Moderator of St Giles', said:
"This commission shows how a musical tradition can be continuously renewed and refreshed.
"The Missa brevis is a gift from St Giles' to the wider Church and is a generous way of marking the passing of this milestone on the long journey of the worshipping congregation."
St Giles has been at the centre of many historic events ranging from the riot in 1637 against the Book of Common prayer which was one of the catalysts of the War of the Three Kingdoms, to the vigil over the coffin of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 2022.
For details of more events relating to the 900th anniversary celebrations of St Giles', please check their website for updates towards the end of this year.