Richard Baker – To Keep a True Lent

by 5:4

My Lent series continues with a very short choral piece by Richard Baker, setting Robert Herrick’s well-known poem To Keep a True Lent. Herrick’s text draws heavily on the sentiments of Isaiah chapter 58 (words traditionally read at the start of Lent), drawing stark contrasts between superficial and genuine acts of humility and fasting.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ’tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Baker’s setting whips through the text at breakneck speed. The lines of the first half are subjected to the constant, nagging enquiry, “is it?”; the choir acts as one, forming a somewhat tortuous line, its melody regularly yanked aside to emphasise the questioning nature of the words. A tenor voice breaks free in the latter half, so caught up in wildly enthusiastic exhortations that he half gabbles his lines. It’s a telling setting, perhaps all the more so for the way it sidesteps the Lenten convention for slow, sombre music. Baker has perfectly judged the overall emphasis of Herrick’s text, which is neither dolorous nor particularly introspective, but rather a vigorous and stirring throwing down of the gauntlet to those who really are seeking to keep a true Lent.

This performance was given in February 2012 during Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

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