Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Choral Classics - Phenomenal Women

Dorrit Black, Music, 1928 (Gallery of New South Wales)

It was a great joy to introduce 
Choral Classics at St Stephen Walbrook this week, five beautiful choral works and two readings on the theme 'Phenomenal Women', marking International Women's Day. A recording of the service is on YouTube. My script is below:

Choir : Amy Beach - Peace I leave with You  (1.5m)


A warm welcome to St Stephen Walbrook. My name is Phillip Dawson and it is a great privilege to introduce five Choral Classics selected by Olivia Tait and performed under her direction by our talented Choral Scholars. This week our theme - Phenomenal Women - marks International Women’s Day.  


While war affects everyone regardless of gender, UN statistics show that women and girls are twice as likely to have experienced sexual violence during and after periods of conflict. 


Just as shocking is the fact that in the past thirty years, seven out of ten peace processes worldwide did not involve any women mediators or signatories. 


Women excluded from officially promoting the peace expressed so beautifully in the responsory we’ve just heard by the pioneering Amy Beach, composed in 1891, setting to music words from the Gospel of John.


The vital - yet officially unrecognized -  efforts of women in pursuing peace and reconciliation can be glimpsed in the wartime scrapbooks of Imogen Holst. 


These reveal that at the time she was composing our next piece, she was lobbying for the release of composers held in internment camps here - and organising concerts highlighting the talents and plight of refugee musicians. 


Causes which, perhaps, influenced her decision to set John Donne’s text to music. The poet’s sub-title explains that “A Hymn to Christ” was written "at the author's last going into Germany".

Choir : A Hymne to Christ - Imogen Holst  (3m)

The World Economic Forum states the global gender gap in political empowerment is closing - but at a rate far slower than in areas such as health and economics.


Whilst Vatican City is now the only country in the world where elections are held but women are prohibited from voting; elsewhere societal factors discourage women’s legal rights from being exercised.


In 2016 the President of Nigeria said “I don’t know exactly what party my wife belongs to. Actually she belongs in the kitchen.”  


Comments which would have dismayed but not discouraged Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou, who explained that underlying all her writing is the message: ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.’ 


Resilience and self-confidence in the face of adversity abound in these verses from Phenomenal Woman - one of her most famous poems, read for us now by Izzy.



Reading - Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou


Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.



El Salvador, Jamaica and Honduras are amongst the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman today. Here, rates of femicide - the intentional murder of women by men simply because they are women - is the highest in the world. 


A toxic combination of poverty and organised crime thought to be behind the murder of one woman every sixteen hours. Less than four in one hundred such crimes are ever prosecuted. 



Our next piece sets to music the last words of a phenomenal woman before she was killed. 


Edith Cavell, a nurse who sheltered and cared for both Allied and German soldiers and helped them to escape, was betrayed by an informer, arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad. 


Her last words, recorded by an Anglican chaplain, are set to music by Cecilia McDowall in a piece which evokes Edith Cavell’s last lonely night in a military prison before her execution in October 1915. The soprano soloist is Laura Newey


Choir : Standing as I do Before God - Cecilia McDowall  (6m)

Last summer I visited Noor-Weg - a women’s project in the Aida refugee camp north of Bethlehem. In order to fund therapy for their disabled children, these women have drawn on their skills to form a business co-operative; offering cookery classes, accommodation and souvenirs. Economic empowerment that has had a small but important cascade effect to other women through a local supply chain. 


These women not only nurture the health and welfare of their families and community - but are guardians of culture and tradition, through the classes and gifts they sell. 


Our next piece is ‘My Guardian Angel’ - a carol by Judith Weir based on a short text by William Blake. 


My Guardian Angel - Judith Weir  (2.5m)



One of the themes for this year’s International Women’s Day is digital equality - arising from the astonishing fact that even emerging Artificial Intelligence has been shown to exhibit gender bias. Perhaps less surprising when we discover that only 22% of those working in AI are women. 


Helping to buck the trend in the digital sphere are a new generation of female poets - self publishing their work on social media. In fact it is young women aged 13 to 24 who are the largest consumers of poetry in Britain today. 


Lucy Thynne has won the Foyles Young Poet Award three times. Her poem ‘My Mother’s Return’ is read by Alex


Reading - My Mother’s Return by Lucy Thynne 


At last / she turned around / into the Arrivals gate / at Terminal 5 / and I counted the seconds it took / for her eyes to find us / the time / I took to recognise her myself / browned / new smells hugging to flesh. / Only a week / but she laughed / at how tall we’d gotten, / commanded my sister & I / back to back. / I was still taller / she said / but whispered that / it wasn’t by much. / Spoke in a voice / I could make full rooms from / gentle, / held our cheeks / by tired hands. / As if by some need / to touch what was her own, / smiling, / like it was something / she was surprised at herself for. / I stared back / wondered what my mother saw / in each stretched absence. / If that night / she would dream of children / with swollen stomachs / and empty hands, / if she would always measure / what had been lost / by the difference / in her daughters’ spines. / Eventually, / with fingers gripped tight between us / we drove through the evening, / & I thought about / what had been broken / in my mother, / how fast / I could make it whole


I hope you will return to Choral Classics next week. We rely on donations to finance our music ministry - please give generously as you leave, to ensure we can maintain it. 


If you’ve been moved to try a bit of singing yourself, you’re in the right place - friendly, informal rehearsals of the Walbrook Community Choir follow  - do join them. 



Our final a cappella piece today breathes musical life into Edith Franklin Wyatt’s poem giving thanks for the joys of companionship. As we listen, perhaps we might call to mind the phenomenal women who have been guiding lights in our lives. 


With every blessing for the week ahead, from us all here, goodbye. 

My Companion - Elaine Hagenberg  (5m)

Image : Dorrit Black, Music, 1928 (Gallery of New South Wales)

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