The impact of sound, music really, in this cathedral makes me realize that those builders had it in their minds to create acoustic spaces that would thrill and exalt.
In the picture, you can see a big group of people -- well, colorful dots in the picture -- at the end of the nave. They are just in front of the point where the level of the floor abruptly rises some 16 or 20 feet to the level of the quire. (Further to the east, to add to the topographical complexity, the floor rises again to the high altar, and then again to the shrine of St. Thomas -- Becket, that is).
We heard the dress rehearsal of Messiah with the Canterbury Chorus (a town group, quite good) and the London Handel orchestra, on period instruments. It isn't music designed for this space, and so at times the fugues got muddy, swirling around at random in the vast and intricately reflective spaces.
We did not come back for the concert that evening, beautiful as this rehearsal was. We did, though, stay for evensong, and that was startlingly different. To begin with, the group was much smaller -- a choir of 16 -- and sang, not in the nave, but in the "quire" -- a much narrower, more intimate space, the wooden seats where the monks used to chant eight times a day.
By Vespers, the sun had set, and the nave was in darkness. And then, it was different, too, in that the skies had not only gone dark, but a storm had blown in with thunder, lightning, and hail beating on the roof and the vast, dark windows.
And then, different in that this was liturgical music, service music, sung as part of a meditative event, what we would call worship if we were "churched."
Messiah is Christian in origin and ideology, and sacred in intent, but is not worshipful: educational, theatrical, virtuosic, it is Enlightenment concert-music. The service music of the evensong Vespers is, by contrast, deliberately worshipful, contemplative of what it might mean to be in the presence of God: the Magnificat (Mary amazed by what has happened to her in becoming pregnant with God); and the song (Nunc dimittis) of Simeon, the old priest who sees the child Jesus in the temple and can finally let go his own hold on this life. Even the anthem was contemplative, Vaughan Williams' beautiful and simple setting of George Herbert's poem "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life."
And again, a difference: while for some 1500 years, all the liturgical music in Canterbury Cathedral has been sung by men (yes, all-- at least as far as I can tell), this Vespers was sung by 16 girls. The cathedral staff seemed delighted that this was happening, finally. I gather the church has to be careful not to offend more conservative parts of the Anglican communion, but this church itself had initiated this change, trained the girls, and welcomed them warmly.
And the acoustic space of Canterbury's quire accepted the sound, as well: the psalms and the other service music resonated quite as richly as the boys' sound would have.
I made a recording of about two minutes of this exhilarating peal, the sounds pouring out of the cathedral tower into the open air and across the old town.