Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Canterbury sounds

Canterbury Cathedral is not only dazzling complex and beautiful to the eye -- the long reach of the nave, the high Gothic arches with their leaping secondary columns, the light pouring in the nave in the intervals of low winter sunshine -- but also to the ear.

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.

But parts of it were stunning: particularly the countertenor, Robin Blaze -- who found perfectly the resonance of the space. Here's his performance of "But who may abide" with Tafelmusik...


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.


As we walked around the cathedral earlier that day, we heard the church's sound in yet another way: the bells. It was a peal of 8 bells, first at a slowish tempo, and then in what seemed to us a fiercely demanding allegro. Imagine pulling those ropes at just the right time to get your bell in rhythm with seven others!

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.

2 comments:

Chen Liang said...

After a long day of travelling and preparation for my audition, it's such a joy to read your blog--a quite different and refreshing experience of music.
The piano teacher at Michigan mentioned a contemporary musical setting of Songs of Innocence of Experience (http://www.music.umich.edu/about/BolcomGrammy.pdf). Sounded quite interesting~I might want to check it out after I'm done with this mess here...

taplatt said...

Beautiful, all of this. I have yet to make it to an evensong...it's on my list.