The spring of 2016 is the 60th anniversary of the Compline Choir in Seattle. The choir and visiting alumni will be celebrating it on the weekend of August 12-14, when we will sing for the morning services at St. Mark’s Cathedral as well as Compline that evening.
This spring also marks the second anniversary of the passing, on April 27 2014, of Peter R. Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir. Each Sunday night, as we sing, we face the plaque on the pillar in the “Compline Corner” which marks the niche where some of Peter’s ashes and other mementos are stored:
Both anniversaries have caused me to reflect on the Compline Service, its legacy, and what has moved me to sing it week after week for more than fifty years.
For the last 60 years, a choir of men has been chanting a half-hour service done over the centuries by monks and nuns at the end of the day – before they go to sleep. It’s called Compline, from the Latin completorium which means “completion,” both in the sense that it honors the end of the day as well as completes the daily cycle of prayer services called “the offices.” or “Divine Hours.”
The Compline Choir started at first as a group of men, many of them professional church musicians, who were interested in learning more about chant as well as singing multi-part music. In 1956 the group began to end their Sunday evening rehearsals by singing Compline in an otherwise empty but quite resonant Cathedral. Let’s imagine for a minute that we were in that group. Was it the beauty of music — an aesthetic experience — that motivated them?
Certainly. But perhaps for some, there were moments when they felt another presence there — something mysterious….something compelling…something holy.
Through the 1950s and early 1960s, people started to attend the service. They found something in just being silent, engaging in what some would call “active listening,” others “silent worship.” The local classical music FM radio station started a live broadcast of the service in 1962, which continues to this day.
In 1964 I was invited to sing in the choir by a friend. It was not too many years after that the service was discovered and populated by many young people, who claimed the space by not only sitting in the pews, but by sitting or lying on the floors – not an unusual idea for my generation, which was becoming known for shattering cultural barriers. What is remarkable is that the number of people who attend the service has remained constant and youthful ever since the mid-1960s, with 200-500 attending the service, and from 15-30K listening over live radio or internet stream. Why are people listening to the service? What do they find there?
Let’s listen to a hymn that I recall from my earliest days at Compline, and which I write about in the first chapter of my book. The hymn is called “Now the day is over.” Follow along with the words, and see what it evokes for you…
In the three verses of this hymn we hear the main ideas of Compline. First — “Night is drawing nigh,” bringing thoughts of the brevity of life and the need for vigilance. Then — “With thy tenderest blessings, may our eyelids close” – perhaps a hint that sleep is like a “little death.” And finally, the idea of our need for protecting presence: “May thine angels spread their white wings above me, watching round my bed.”
As I observed in my book, “It was a child’s prayer – “Now I lay me down to sleep” – but here were men in their fifties singing this in utmost sincerity and sweetness.”
And, when I experienced it, there was also this presence – I know it now as a numinous experience – a feeling that there was something in that haunting space that was “wholly other,” mysterious, symbolized by the darkness, but which could be accessed within myself as well.
The man who started the Compline Service in Seattle was Peter Hallock, to whom I dedicated my book, Prayer as Night Falls.
Peter was born in 1924 and grew up in Kent, Washington. At the age of 9 or 10 he first saw St. Mark’s Cathedral, heard the music, and, as he described it, he felt like he had “died and gone to heaven.” He studied organ and composition at the University of Washington, served in World War II, and then attended the Royal School of Church Music from 1949-51, which at the time was in Canterbury, in another Kent entirely. He also became one of the first Americans to sing in an English Cathedral Choir at Canterbury Cathedral.
Among his studies was Gregorian Chant, and his class would go down to the crypt of the cathedral, and they often sang the Office of Compline, which had just been published with the Gregorian melodies set to the English words of the Proposed book of Common Prayer from the 1920s. The experience of singing Compline in English – in Canterbury, which had been founded by Benedictine monks thirteen hundred years before –in the-crypt, which was as resonant as that heavenly building back in Seattle — was perhaps the most profound experience that Peter brought back from England.
When he returned to Seattle in the summer of 1951, he was hired by the new Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral to be the organist and choirmaster, a post he held for the next 40 years. After his retirement from St. Mark’s, he continued to direct the Compline Choir another 18 years.
I knew and worked with Peter for almost fifty years – he was a major mentor for me. I learned from his thoughts and words and his music, all of which were informed by and evoked the numinous. We’ll get to hear two of his compositions later on.
Peter advised me periodically as I was writing my book, and I was especially happy that he was able to read it in November 2013, because his health was getting “iffy.” He emailed me at one point that there was something he wished I had written about more. It was only in April 2014, when I visited him in a convalescent facility, that he told me “look into the Otto camp.” After doing a little research, I realized that he was talking about the adherents to the ideas of Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher at the beginning of the twentieth century, who had first used the expression “numinous,” from numen – a deity.
In the second part of this post, I’ll show how the concept of the numinous infused Peter’s compositions, and why the Compline Service has continued to appeal over the years.