Sounds of a Cathedral. Part I: Good Friday

It was auspicious that the Sounds and Silences project should have begun in earnest just before Easter. I have often observed that the cathedral has its own ‘everyday’ sounds: these include not just the daily and weekly rounds of liturgical observations and services, such as the said Morning and Evening Prayer services, and the music of Evensong, but also the sounds of people walking about the building, ‘housekeeping’ sounds, such as cleaning or moving furniture, or even that rich, resonant silence of a big building just being there. But important festivals in the church’s year provide unusual and distinctive sounds, and the sounds of usual things – like singing – being done with unusual intensity. The Liturgy of the Lord’s Death, on the afternoon of Good Friday, provided much food for thought about sound and the weaving of different types of sound into a fabric of worship, contemplation, remembrance, observation, watching and waiting. As this service took place just a couple of days after our first project meeting, I had a heightened awareness of, and curiousness about sound in all its forms.

I noticed and reflected upon many different manifestations of sound throughout the service. First I heard the clergy and choir enter in silence. It sounds odd at first to say that we heard them ‘enter in silence’, for surely in silence there is nothing to hear. But this particular kind of silence is, of course, not silent at all: it means that their voices are silent, and they are not singing in procession as they normally do when they enter the cathedral. They entered quietly, but the swish and click of many people moving as one into their places, into the choir stalls under the crossing, and into the seats on and around the Nave Altar, was palpable. After the Collect – which is the special prayer for the day – was spoken by the President (the member of the clergy who presides over the service – on this occasion the Canon Precentor, Nicola Stanley), I soon heard my own voice speaking the first Biblical reading for the service. My voice was sounding both at close hand within my own head, directly from my mouth to my ears, but at the same time it also resonated over the microphone. The passage, taken from Chapters 52 and 53 of the prophecy of Isaiah, is full of sonorous, arresting phrases, among which are several iterations of the words ‘infirmities’ and ‘iniquities’. At one point I mixed up one word for the other and in doing so, corrected myself, making it clear to myself – and no doubt others – that despite the fact that I frequently speak in public to large numbers of people, it is on rather infrequent occasions that I read such rich, poetic texts.

Soon after this reading was the Dean’s extraordinary rendition of John’s Gospel, Chapters 18 and 19. I had rarely heard it sound this way. His powerful and nuanced performance of these passages made the biblical narrative sound real in ways that the repeated reading of scriptural text sometimes does not achieve. The reading was not provided in the service booklet, unlike the texts for everything else, and so the congregation were forced to rely on their own hearing, on their listening to the words as they were being spoken. This was powerful, and encouraged me to concentrate hard, and to watch and listen intently. But the real height of liturgical performance was to come, fully accompanied by dramatic sound. First, as the choir prepared to move to the back of the nave, a ‘cellist called Robert Bull played Benjamin Britten’s Kontakion. This is part of Britten’s third cello suite, based upon the Russian Orthodox ‘Hymn for the Dead’ and written in 1971. This was, in itself, an exceptionally rich and moving sound, which focused us and primed us all for The Proclamation of the Cross. This part of the service was, for me, the most disarming and dissolving experience as, crucially, it was all about sound.

As the large wooden cross was carried up the nave to the altar, accompanied by antiphonal, or ‘call and response, singing, there were several moments at which the singing and the procession stopped, and the cross was struck hard against the stone floor of the nave. Each time that happened the resulting crack was loud and fast, and went right through my body and mind. Each time I heard the crack, it was accompanied by the clergy and attendants dropping to their knees, giving an attendant swish of clothing. The final crack, as the cross reached the altar, resonated in a different way through the more open space of the crossing, and the assembled company were left for a moment in a silence that was nonetheless full of the meaning of the sound that had just passed.

The rawness of those resounding cracks of wood on stone were then driven home with a rendition of John Sanders’ ‘Reproaches’. This is a medieval liturgical text, in a musical setting written less than twenty-five years ago by Sanders, then the organist and musical director at Gloucester Cathedral. The ‘Reproaches’, also known as the Improperia, are Christ’s questions during his Passion, such as ‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?’ Over and over in the music, the word ‘How’ twists a knife, using heart-wrenching suspensions (a delay in the musical resolution between the parts creating a harmonic ‘crunch’). It is a peculiar property of Sanders’ ‘Reproaches’ that its text reaches back to the medieval liturgy, and that its modern musical setting should feel as though there can never have been any other way of hearing it. By the end of this section of the liturgy I was completely undone, and this emotional dissolution was achieved almost entirely through sound. My intellectual faculties were largely bypassed, or sidelined, and my emotional faculties needled and pummelled.

The service then doubled down on the importance of liturgical, musical, historical, and emotional continuity in the ‘Reproaches’, with the singing of the early medieval hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ as the choir processed back to the crossing. Processional singing of this sort offers a different sound experience than that when the choir is static: I heard the volume swelling and ebbing as the individuals passed by, with different voices coming into focus as different people moved past me. There was then a return to a concentration on the spoken word, with intercessions, which are prayers of petition, or prayers for particular people and situations. The reader, here called an ‘intercessor’, reads each prayer, and the congregation answer. In these exchanges there is a repeated contrast between the single voice of the reader and the multiple voice answering. Different spoken openings and answerings took place soon after, between single voices, during the repeated murmurings of the Eucharist being distributed. The same voice offered the communion over and over, and a different voice replied each time.


The final musical sounds of the service, the communion motet, deployed multiple voices differently again. This time Antonio Lotti’s 18th-century Crucifixus began with eight different voice parts singing the word Crucifixus (‘He was crucified’) over and over, in similar, though not identical, musical phrases in which the voice drops down from ‘Cru-’ to ‘fi-’ on a lower note, and then up to the ‘-xus’ on a note higher than that on which they sounded the ‘Cru-’ in each case. The lowest voices opened and the wave of ‘Crucifixus’ rippled upwards to the highest voice, which is the last to come in, before all eight parts are united on a long ‘-xus’ before proceeding on through the rest of the piece. Again, suspensions and harmonic crunches are used, so that with the final high voice’s entry on ‘Cru- ci- fi-’, the ‘E’ on ‘fi-’ clashes with the ‘D’ on which the second highest voice is already singing its own ‘fi-’. This created a twist of the emotions at the precise point at which all eight voices are telling you, again, just what Good Friday is about: ‘He was crucified’. It was a dramatic endpoint to the service, which ended with just a final few words from the President. Then, at 3 pm, the hour at which traditionally the death of Christ was supposed to have taken place, the congregation departed in silence. This was not a quiet silence, though, or even peaceful silence, but a resonant, poignant, emotionally charged silence, full of the echoes of all the sounds that had been deployed to make the meaning of this service.




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University of Bristol / Brigstow Institute / Bristol Cathedral

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