This article first appeared in the February 2015 article of our parish magazine.
“Wash Me Throughly” G F Handel (1685-1759)
No, there’s not a typo in the title! – although that’s what the ladies of the choir thought when first introduced to this anthem a couple of years ago. I wasn’t overly worried by the apparent error as it is not uncommon for words and phrases to be ‘massaged’, or ‘imaginatively translated’ in order to fit with the rhythm and meter of the music. What’s more, the original psalm upon which this song is based contains the words “wash me through and through”, so although it seemed wrong at first, it also made sense.
Since then I have looked up ‘throughly’ in a number of dictionaries, in contrast to ‘thoroughly’: I discovered that throughly suggests completely, whereas thoroughly indicates carefully and with attention to detail. So, in the context of this psalm and song, throughly implies a difference between a jolly good thorough mechanical washing and being completely spiritually purged of sin.
It is this spiritual cleansing that makes the song so appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Known as one of the penitential psalms, psalm 51 includes the phrase “wash me through and through and cleanse me from my iniquities”. The psalm carries on at length, asking for mercy before repenting, but Handel chose to use only this line:
Wash me throughly from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.
The music he set it to is simply sublime. Written for two sopranos (the higher female voice range) it is not beyond the reach of a well-warmed up alto, and that is how the ladies of St Margaret’s choir first learned it. The parts are fairly equal, with the tune weaving between the two voices, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in canon. Sarah Ogden and I (the only two altos at the time) enjoyed the variety offered by a part that has melody as well as harmony, although we were both rather taken aback by the longest Bb in the world – one note (a Bb) is held on for 5 bars. Including the notes that lead up to and away from the Bb, that meant no breathing for 18 beats, whilst sustaining constant (and fairly loud) tone quality. Try it! At first we took turns to snatch breaths while the other continued singing, but eventually we were both able manage the whole phrase in one breath. And it’s a good job too, because in later years “Wash Me Throughly” was offered as a true duet i.e. one soprano and one alto.
The last time I had the privilege of singing this anthem was at the 2014 Ash Wednesday evening service. Jennifer and I sat at the back of a small congregation, moving to the front to sing this anthem after the sermon. For me, it was one of those special occasions when everything dropped into place: the music, the words, the liturgical context, the acoustics and the beauty of the building. I was recently told by a young musician that to live without music would be to live life in black and white. The Holy Spirit was certainly with us that night, helping us to live in full and glorious technicolour.
You can hear a recording of “Wash Me Throughly” here.
This Lent, allow music like this into your spiritual preparations. Be throughly cleansed and ready for Easter.