Prayerbook – About

An Oratorio


solo baritone & soprano, barber-shop quartet,

eight-part treble voices, chorus,

string quartet, trumpet, three trombones, timpani, bells, one cymbal clash,



The texts selected and the music composed by

David Owen Norris

Part One – Faith

  1. Prelude – God the Father
  2. Preface
  3. Aria : On Miracles
  4. The Litany
  5. Hymn : O God, our help in ages past


Part Two – Hope

  1. Fugue – God the Son
  2. Collect
  3. Calypso
  4. Advertisement
  5. Rubric
  6. The Last Trump


Part Three – Charity

  1. Interlude – God the Holy Ghost
  2. Canon : In heavenly love abiding
  3. Aria : On the risk and abyss of love
  4. Hymn : Love divine, all loves excelling
  5. Double Fugue : A Table of Kindred & Affinity
  6. Chaconne : A Dark Speaking
  7. Trinity – God the Three-in-One
  8. Cadenza for the Organ Pedals
  9. A New World
  10. Seven-fold Amen



‘Tradition is not a noun shaped once and for all in the past; it is a verb active under God now for the sake of the future.’

David E. Jenkins  Bishop of Durham :  6th July 1986, York


‘Change is the nursery

Of music, joy, life and eternity.’

John Donne


The congregation is invited to sing verses 1, 4 & 6 of O God our help in ages past, the choruses of Personent hodie and the whole of Love Divine.

The oratorio’s duration is about three-score minutes and ten.


This is an oratorio about Tradition and Change. It is written from within the Church of England, but listeners from other religious traditions and from none may find it thought-provoking. Most of the words are from the Book of Common Prayer, whose Prefaces across four centuries are a testament to the inevitability of change, and a witness to our enduring resistance to it. A full list of the writers is given at the end of the libretto.

I have edited some passages for scansion, and occasionally for clarity. John Keble, in particular, seems to have been incapable of writing a sentence without at least one conditional clause. Such equivocation, the quintessence of Anglicanism, generally sings badly, though listeners will hear how the splendidly typical sentence from the 1928 Preface which concludes the libretto reveals rich layers of meaning during a measured recitation in real time that it cannot convey when apprehended in an instant on the printed page. However unequivocal the message of any one particular section may be rendered by such editing, I hope to have restored an Anglican balance across the whole work, which stretches from the mediaeval starkness of the Litany to a compressed hint of David E. Jenkins’s thoughts on the nature of miracles. Let no-one mistake these comments on Anglicanism. Equivocation is surely a necessary part of our approach to the Unknowable.

Listeners of a theological bent will appreciate that the Table of Kindred and Affinity is included less for eugenic reasons than to represent the Law, and that Tyndale’s beautiful translation of St. Paul represents the New Covenant. Musical devices are used to illuminate the meaning of the text. The Litany is set to a brutal march; the Table of Kindred is a double-fugue that obeys all the ‘rules’ (but which I hope will give pleasure); the eschatology of A Dark Speaking is expressed in an obsessive Chaconne. The three instrumental pieces representing the Persons of God are combined to symbolize the Trinity (an expansion of Dr. Jeremy Begbie’s exegesis of the musical triad). The Father is represented by Harmony, the Son by the human impulse of Melody, somewhat hallowed as an organ fugue, while the Holy Ghost is mainly Rhythm. The quasi-identification of the Three Persons with Faith, Hope and Love (to use Tyndale’s surprising word) has helped to focus Part One on an Old Testament world-view, Part Two on the New Testament from Advent to Revelation, while Part Three looks to the future. Listeners with an ear for long-range tonality will notice how the dichotomy set up between E and E flat (the Trinitarian key of three flats) at the end of the Preface is amplified as the piece progresses, and only finally resolved with the clash of cymbals at the end.

Every listener will take a different message from the piece. May those messages contribute to the historic intellectual freedom of the Anglican Communion.

David Owen Norris

Prague, New York and Andover

August 2006


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