For mixed choir, semi-chorus & organ
(or for double-choir and organ)
Poetry by William Blake
Additional text: author unknown
Duration: 6 minutes
Commissioned by James O’Donnell and the choir of Westminster Abbey
Perusal score available at left. For score purchase, please visit Boosey & Hawkes.
“Of the two triumphs of the evening, one was a ravishing new setting by James Lavino, ‘Holy Thursday,’ marrying Blake with the Maundy Thursday plainsong Ubi Caritas, and drawing together poems contrasting of parish beneficence and society’s indifference to childhood squalor.” – Roderic Dunnett, Church Times
The “Holy Thursday” from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence describes an actual event from the poet’s lifetime: the annual service of thanksgiving, held at St. Paul’s Cathedral, for the children of London’s charity schools. The association of charity with Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday) originates with an event described in the Gospel of John: at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and issues them a new commandment (in Latin, mandatum, from which Maundy derives) “that…as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” Blake’s poem portrays the church as the beneficent guardian of London’s poor children, who process into the Cathedral with innocent faces and raise their voices to heaven. The poem likens the children to lambs and angels, and ends with the exhortation that we should “cherish pity.”
The “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience is also concerned with charity, but finds a terrible gulf between word and deed, expressing disgust at the hypocrisy of a society that preaches compassion, but allows its children to suffer in squalor. Here, the poor live in an “eternal winter” where the sun never shines, and their song to heaven is a “trembling cry.”
Hovering above these two poems in my piece is the plainsong melody “Ubi caritas,” traditionally sung at Maundy Thursday services during the commemoration of the washing of the feet, and already 500 years old in Blake’s day. The plainsong opens the piece, setting the scene for the children’s procession, and reappears, slightly varied, several times later, a reminder of the call to charity. The poem of Innocence, sung by the main choir, establishes itself at the beginning and proceeds steadily, but is continually intruded upon by the poem of Experience, sung in a different metre by a semi-chorus. The plainsong then re-emerges at the end of the piece, restored to its original form, though in a different key from the main choir, expressing the hope that we may yet unite our divided selves and love one another.