Sounds of a Cathedral. Part 2: Easter Sunday

The feelings and sounds of Easter Sunday were different in many ways from those of Good Friday, though naturally one must think of the two as inextricably linked, historically and theologically. Walking in to the cathedral on Good Friday I had been confronted by that sound of lots of people positively and deliberately being quiet together. The sound on Easter Sunday morning was entirely different: the cathedral bells pealed and people greeted one another happily. Clergy and musicians alike had that look of joyful hysteria generated by an intense process almost completed, but still in train.

Again, I was alive to the presence of sound and all the different characteristics of the sound created by and in the cathedral that day. I stopped to make a recording of the cathedral bells as I walked up to the cathedral from the south east. The noise, naturally, became louder as we got closer, and as we turned onto the space of College Green itself (so named after the college of canons that staffed – and still staff – the cathedral). The Green is part of the cathedral’s precincts, the cathedral’s land, and so the sounds that happen on and around the Green are also, strictly speaking the cathedral’s sounds. In my awareness of that, I heard the sound of the fountains outside the City Hall as integrated with the sounds of the bells, like a gentle counterpoint. When the peal paused, the sound of the fountains entered into the bells’ silence and into my hearing, and took their own solo, only to be muted again when the bells resumed. The bells, then so dominant, were in their turn significantly muted as I entered the porch at the south-east corner of the nave. There was a significant sound irony just at the start of the service, as the Bishop of Bristol introduced the Liturgy. Just after the phrase, ‘Open our ears that we may hear your word’, the microphone came on, so that he could then be properly heard. I was half tempted to think of this as another piece of liturgical theatre!

The musical setting for the Easter service was the French composer Jean Langlais’s ‘Messe Sollenelle’ (Solemn Mass), written in 1951. It was solemn only in the sense of being serious and appropriate to the church’s most important feast, for it was glorious. It is difficult and virtuosic for the choir, though several of them assured me that it was their favourite mass setting of all. The forces of the Cathedral choir were at their greatest: the girl choristers and the boy choristers were singing together, as they do only at Christmas and Easter, and they were joined by members of the Cathedral Consort, the choral scholars, and finally, an expanded number of lay clerks. There were many moments of intense sound to savour in this complex setting of the mass, including the Sanctus, which echoes the songs of praise offered to God by the angels. This begins with a kind of ‘flurry’ on the organ, and then a majestic and enormous full-choir outpouring of ‘Sanctus’. The power of the enhanced numbers of singers was almost overwhelming when, at the end, the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ (‘Hosanna in the highest’) finishes with the trebles, the highest voices, singing ‘-cel’ on a high ‘C’, right at the top of their range: ‘in the highest’ is painted in sound, literally, with one of the highest notes that a choir can sing. The service ended with ‘extra’ sounds. Where a cello played during the Good Friday service – an instrument with an appropriately sonorous, perhaps even melancholy voice – Easter Sunday finished with a trumpet accompanying the traditional Easter Hymn, ‘Thine be the glory’, set to Handel’s music from Maccabeus. The trumpet was especially fanfare-y, metallic bright, and joyful on the final refrain.

Contrast was the essence of the choral sounds that day. Langlais’s mass, in all its French, modernist splendour, had been interspersed with instances of traditional chant. In chant, the voices sing together in unison, not in harmony or indeed dissonance or disharmony, such as those ‘crunches’ of sound mentioned several times in my Good Friday blog. These chants included the ‘Vidi Aquam’ (‘I saw the water’), sung by the adult voices only, to accompany the moment when the congregation is sprinkled with Holy Water. Finally, at the very end of the service, the Choir processed out singing the Easter Anthems. These three scriptural passages, from the Letters of St Paul (from I Corinthians 6, Romans 6, and I Corinthians 15) were sung to a plainsong chant arranged by the English composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Suddenly the sound took us back to medieval liturgy once again, albeit in a nineteenth-century arrangement. Once again, we had the experience that is familiar from every Sunday procession and from Good Friday, of the choir passing along the nave, with corporate sound splitting into individual voices as they pass by you, and then coalescing back into the sound of a choir, not a group of individual voices. This time though, in an experience almost unique to Easter Sunday, the choir did not turn around at the end of the nave and pass back up the nave aisle towards the cloister, but instead processed right out through the great west door at the end of the nave.

This created a different quality of sound entirely. The sound didn’t obey its normal pattern of the choir passing the congregation again, bringing with them another swell in volume, the fragmenting into single voices and another reintegration into a whole. On this Easter morning, the sound diminished progressively, line by line, as each pair of singers passed through the doors, until just the final few voices, in this case a pair of tenors, then a bass and an alto, were still in the building. And then there were none. We could hear them all singing together again, but outside the cathedral. The change in sound from that to which we are accustomed drew the congregation around, to look outwards, and to see the singers, in their red and white cassocks, all windswept and smiling in the morning sunshine, in the knowledge of a job perfectly executed.

-BW

 

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