Cathedral sounds after Manchester

This morning  – May 23rd – we woke to the news that there had been an explosion the night before at a concert in the Manchester Arena, and that many people had been killed and injured. The performer was Ariana Grande, a young singer who is particularly popular with young teenage, and pre-teen, girls. As I write, it is said that at least 59 people are injured, and 22 people are dead, 12 of whom are children. The dead are not all named, but one at least, Saffie Roussos, was only eight years old, the same age as my own younger daughter. As usual on a Tuesday afternoon I brought my elder daughter (who is a probationer chorister in the Bristol Cathedral Choir) to the cathedral, to rehearse for Evensong. We walked through the quiet cathedral nave, and each lit a candle for the dead, the injured, and the bereaved. Two or three people sat alone in the nave seats; two or three others talked in whispers beside the candle stands; others talked in more audible voices as they came in and out of the building. As I returned later to hear Evensong, the normal pre-service hush had settled on the building and on the people gathered within it. Conversation ceased, but the quiet sounds of seats being taken, and prayer books being shuffled, continued. As the service began, as might be expected on such a day, the celebrant asked that we observe a period of silence. The residual incidental sounds melted away, and all that could be heard was the breathy hum of the organ, and the intermittent creaks of the wooden choir stalls. With that silence the dead and injured from the Manchester explosion were cemented into our minds.

The service then began, as it always does, with the cantor’s invocation to God to facilitate the proper speech and song necessary to the celebration of the liturgy: ‘O Lord open thou our lips’. The customary response came from the choir: ‘And our mouth shall show forth thy praise’. In those words it is assured that the worship to be offered will be a corporate production of sound. After three more such verses and responses, the service turned to the psalm for the day, Psalm 115.  This ends with two verses, verse 17 and verse 18, that particularly struck me today, as we thought of the young lives that had been taken: ‘The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.’ ‘But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever more. Praise the Lord.’ Here, ‘silence’ is the realm of the dead, and the preserve of the dead. The dead make no noise. Today the final verse struck me as both poignant and defiant. The dead are silent, and so those young girls who had gathered to hear Ariana Grande sing, and to sing along with her, and with one another, will sing no more. But the choir gathered there in the cathedral – and in so many other churches around the country at about this time – will sing for them. It struck me as especially moving that the majority of the people singing in the choir this afternoon were young girls, the same sorts of ages as many who were at the Manchester Arena last night.

The central, regular, musical items of the Evensong service, after the opening Verses and Responses, and the Psalm, are the Magnificat (the song sung by the Virgin Mary when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, shortly after she was told that she would become the Mother of God), and the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of the Prophet Simeon. In the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon asks God to let him depart this world, for, having seen the Christ Child, he can now die happy, for he has seen the salvation of the world. He declares Christ to be ‘a light, to lighten the gentiles’ and ‘the glory of thy people Israel’. In tonight’s setting, by Charles Wood, the music builds towards the word ‘light’, on which the high voices, in this case the voices of the young girls, reach a forte (loud) ‘F’. This is then swiftly followed by a further, even more climactic, moment in which the high voices reach a fortissimo (very loud) ‘G’, the highest note in the whole piece. No doubt my experience of this musical moment, as all experiences do, contained a great deal of projection, but I heard here another moment of musical defiance: the loud proclamation of light, and glory, by young girls, singing on behalf of other young girls, on a very dark day. I wasn’t sure whether I felt like crying or smiling: today I needed to do both, and this music, performed so exquisitely and so sincerely, gave me the gift of cathartic tears, and healing smiles, all at once.



Lux perpetua luceat eis.                                            May perpetual light shine upon them.

Requiescant in pace.                                                  May they rest in peace.


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University of Bristol / Brigstow Institute / Bristol Cathedral

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