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Harris, Lillie: Margaret

From: £3.50

SATB unaccompanied (with divisions)

Much of the text for this piece is taken from a seventeenth-century memorial found in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Lewisham, south London, preserving the name of an otherwise unknown woman called Margaret who died in 1643. The additional words – meadow-dwelling medica – are my own, with a play on the original meaning of Lewisham – dwelling in the meadows – and borrowing the term medica, describing a woman doctor, from the Record of Deeds of thirteenth-century Leominster in Herefordshire.

Discovering this inscription gave me a powerful sense of connection between the past and the present, almost as if Margaret were a modern woman out of time. She seemed strong and capable, generous and respected in her community. The fact that her second husband was pastor of Lewisham is perhaps the only reason we know of her, and I wondered how many more ‘Margarets’ are out there, lost to history. Not many will have merited a memorial, let alone a costly one chiselled in stone; yet without such a record we can never know.

Margaret is therefore composed in a deliberately hymn-like style in order to reflect not only her close relationship with the church, but also to express my own sense of reverence for her. She was both ordinary and remarkable: a seventeenth-century female medical professional; I hope my piece is a fitting tribute to her memory.

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Margaret Colfe’s Epitaph

Margaret first wife to Jasper Valentine,
after married 33 yeares to Abraham Colfe
pastor of Lewisham; having bene above 40
yeares a willing nurse, midwife, surgeon,
and in part physitian to all, both rich and poore;
without expecting reward; and having left an
annuall guift of 20 shillings to the poore,
being neere 79 yeares old, was buried heere
the 19th of March Ano Domini 1643.

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Lillie Harris’s Margaret was first performed at the National Youth Choir of Great Britain’s Showcase event early in 2020 when Harris was one of four young composers selected for the NYCGB’s Young Composers Scheme. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Margaret Hollard/Valentine Colfe (c. 1565–1643), and the text was discovered on a 17th-century plaque in a church in Lewisham saying that Margaret was ‘a willing nurse, midwife, surgeon, and in part physitian to all, both rich and poore.’ With simple repeated melodic motifs in D major and then a chromatic harmonic lift to a soft 7th chord, it feels as if the piece is immediately given a contemporary edge, taking us from the ancient stone to the present day. The composer uses a clever linguistic twist in ‘meadow dwelling medics; which is used as a play on words of the original meaning of Lewisham — ‘dwelling in the meadows’ — and the term ‘medicai and the 13th-century word describing a woman doctor. I love the strong feeling of reverent reflection that is evoked in this piece through its gentle, hymn-like style and opportunities for some short solos which add to the poignancy of the story that this piece tells, echoing the sentiment stated by the composer in the preface to the piece: ‘I wondered how many more “Margarets” are out there, lost to history? The vocal writing is not Overly demanding, and I think it would be a strong and artistically valuable choice for a small vocal ensemble of competent singers.

Joy Hill, Choir & Organ, October 2021

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