A pilgrimage to Odd Rode

Reginald Nettel

Reginald Nettel

Last year found me driving northwards along the old London to Manchester road A34, and as I came opposite to that fake castle perched on the hill at Mow Cop between Kidsgrove and Congleton, I saw a signpost directing me to a little lane on my left and marked ‘Rode Heath’, at the village which goes by the name ‘Scholar Green’. Turn down this lane and you will quickly come to a small church, nearly opposite to the gates of a private park. It is a bit of still-unspoilt Cheshire, peaceful and calmly beautiful. I parked and went into the church. It is not an old church, being in fact one of the happier creations of Giles Gibert Scott, but it has a well proportioned interior, good carved reredos and a good organ. This is the instrument which Havergal Brian played when organist here at All Saints’, Odd Rode, from 1896 to 1906.

Every Sunday morning his choirmaster Arthur Riley met him at Harecastle Station with a horse and trap and drove him to Odd Rode. Morning service over, Brian was free until the evening service, and could spend his time composing, or walking alone in the quiet lanes, collecting his thoughts, or, in the nineties, paying court for a time to a Miss Major, whose father was factor to the Abrahams, owners since 1669 of the Rode estate. The courtship came to nothing, but Brian looked back in later life to his Sundays at Odd Rode as the happiest days of his life.

On this organ Brian played the Prelude to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and persuaded Arthur Bailey that its calamitous first performance at Birmingham was a slur on British choristers, and Bailey’s choral society set out to put this right. On this organ, at morning service, Brian liked to improvise on a theme from the Prince Consort’s Te Deum, which he had admired since he was ten and had taken part in its performance in Lichfield Cathedral at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Among some old papers in the Church here the present choirmaster, Mr P Stanley Briggs, came upon a copy of Brian’s By the waters of Babylon, which Brian composed while organist at Odd Rode, and which he must have tried out on this very organ; and of course Mr Briggs is determined to get a performance of this work in All Saints as soon as he can purchase the copies of the new edition for choir and organ now being prepared by Musica Viva.

When he does so I shall be there, and I hope it will be in summer, with the church decorated with flowers, a refreshment tent in the field opposite and parking space sufficient for all those who want to come from Manchester, Stockport, Newcastle-under-Lyme Stoke, Congleton, Macclesfield - all within easy distance, and whose inhabitants as likely as not have no idea that beauty and peace can be so near to a busy main road.

The beauty and peace was there in Brian’s day too, when he earned his living as a timber merchant’s representative, traveling about Cheshire and Shropshire buying and selling timber, often on foot, calling on farmers. From these days come the ideas for the English Suites and the Comedy Overtures - rural England with sense of humour - and the great settings of Psalms 23 and 137, and an early version of Psalm 68, now lost, but possibly a precursor of the tremendous fourth symphony.

These Psalm settings are not in the same class as the rurally-inspired suites but were derived from the Psalms themselves. For Brian was a great interpreter of great literature. The intense hatred of the exiled Jews was not within Brian’s experience in his Odd Rode days, but he made a bold approach to the Psalms, not trying to soften them as so many other composers had done. There is no setting of By the Waters of Babylon as downright as Brian’s (of 1903) until we come to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast of 1931, and that is nowhere near so intense as Brian’s setting of Psalm 68 in Das Siegeslied (Symphony No 4 of 1933).

Until well on in his long life, Brian took some great literary theme for his starting point in any tragic work. He drew on his subconscious mind for the matter of his symphonies, but the mood came to him from the Psalms, from Blake, Goethe or Shelley; Shakespeare was a great influence in his songs - greater perhaps than any poet other than Blake - and remember that he never had these poets crammed into him for examinations - he sought them out because they appealed to him, and, I like to think, because they were a topic of conversation with the clergy with whom he came into contact in his work as a parish church organist.

1975 / NL3

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