Sounding Shakespeare – a guest post by Louise Templeton of Antic Disposition

In July 2017 I was part of a theatre company which performed Shakespeare’s RICHARD III in Bristol Cathedral, a repeat visit for the company, Antic Disposition, which put on HENRY V there in 2016. These performances were part of a tour of English cathedrals (including Salisbury, Ely, Gloucester, Peterborough and Leicester) and each one presents unique challenges for actors.

I suppose the first challenge is “how do we make our performance gripping and exciting enough to keep the audience’s attention on us, when they’re surrounded by so much beauty and magnificence?” This is no mean task when you’re in some of the country’s loveliest buildings!

The biggest challenge, though, is acoustic: the huge vault of the cathedral takes our words and rolls them around the space, creating echoes and reverberations. Our incidental music sounds wonderful, but getting the spoken word across to the audience is pretty demanding: our constant reminder from the director is to slow down, increase the volume, and emphasise the consonants. Shakespeare’s text is terrific, but also pretty dense, and when you’re using such rich stuff you don’t want the audience to miss a thing.

Our production was staged “in traverse”, which means the stage runs down the length of the nave with the audience sitting on either side, facing each other. This draws them closer to the action, which is exciting. It also means the actors have to position themselves at one of the ends whenever possible and try to avoid speaking in the centre, so we can avoid having our backs to any section of the audience.

I played Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI. Her husband and her son, Edward Price of Wales, have been murdered by members of the house of York: she is consumed by grief and rage, and her desire for revenge expresses itself in curses directed at the whole York clan and, particularly, Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV:

“Long mays’t thou live to wail thy children’s death

And see another, as I see thee now

Decked in thy rights, as thou art stalled in mine.

Long die thy happy days before thy death,

And after many lengthened hours of grief

Die nether mother, wife, nor England’s queen”

Margaret is a grieving mother whose grief is so all-absorbing it drives out any empathy with the suffering  of others: it felt shocking to deliver those lines in a place which symbolises love and compassion.

It is a great privilege to bring Shakespeare’s characters to life in such a historic setting, and particularly satisfying to hear women’s voices fill the space, speaking lines which in his time were spoken by boys, and in places where for centuries women’s voices were not meant to be heard. All the female characters in Richard lll are strong women, who in turn tell him, without fear,  exactly what they think of him, each one driven by grief and anger to speak out.

Performing in a sacred space also made me reflect on how often God is called upon by various characters in the play, and “used” by each one for their own purpose: Margaret’s God is one of vengeance, whom she begs to punish her enemies:

“God I pray him
That none of you may live his natural age
But by some unlooked accident cut off”

Her principal enemy is Richard himself:

“Cancel his bond of life, dear God I pray,
That I may live and say the dog is dead”.

When I’m hurling these words of such anger and bitterness into the vast space of the cathedral they seem to hang in the air – words matter, they can wound, and once said they cannot be unspoken: such a contrast to the words of love and forgiveness the cathedral was built to give voice to.

The sound of saying ‘yes’

It is traditional for priests to be ordained around the time of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29th. This is because St Peter was the first person designated by Christ to be a leader and Christian religious leaders have long traced a connection back to him. The Sunday closest to 29th June (and the period around it) is known as ‘Petertide’, and this is when most cathedrals will hold ordination services for priests. Thus it was that this past Sunday I found myself at the Service for Ordination of Priests in Bristol Cathedral.

The service contains a series of affirmations, or saying yes, and I was struck by the different ways in which those affirmations were offered. First of all, before the service of ordination even begins, the ordinands (those about to be ordained) take oaths, and make a Declaration of Assent. There are two oaths: one of allegiance to the monarch, and one of obedience to the Bishop. The Declaration of Assent is the confirmation by the priest-to-be that he or she believes the faith of the Church of England, and that he or she will only use the properly authorised forms of wording for public services. This declaration tells us how important it is to the Church that the words used in worship are the correct words: words are powerful, and the speaking of those words must be done correctly. The taking of oaths and declaring assent is an important part of the whole process, and therefore the texts of the oaths, and of the assent, were printed in the service booklet distributed to the congregation. Even though the members of the congregation had not heard the oaths pronounced, or the assent given, it was important that we knew that these texts had been spoken, and what they had said. Close to the start of the service the ordinands are presented to the Bishop, and the Bishop asks several questions. He asks those who know the ordinands whether they have been duly called to serve God in the ministry; he asks the ordinands themselves whether they believe that God is calling them to the ministry; and he asks whether they have taken the oaths and made the declaration of assent. The answer to all these questions has to be in every case a positive affirmation – ‘They have’; ‘They do’; ‘I do so believe’, effectively ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘yes’ –  and it is important that the questions and these positive answers are heard by the congregation.

Later in the service, after the readings, the sermon, and the Creed (the collective statement of the beliefs of the church), a longer series of nine questions is given to the ordinands, about their acceptance of the Holy Scriptures, their diligence in prayer and reading scripture, leading Christ’s people, ministering doctrine and sacraments, and other such queries. The answer to each must be ‘By the help of God, I will’. The ordinands must say ‘yes’, over and over, and they must do it in front of the congregation, for then the congregation is asked its own questions. Two of these are about praying for the ordinands, and supporting them, and again, the answer is expected ‘We will’. But the first, and most striking, question, before the pleas for prayers and support, is different. They congregation is first asked whether, having heard the declarations of the ordinands, it is its will – the congregation’s will – that these people should be ordained. The answer that must be given is another ‘yes’: the congregation must give affirmation as well. Though the sacrament of ordination is something that is conferred upon the ordinands by the bishop, this is an action of the church for the church.

At this point, after the congregation’s assents, the most arresting sounds of the whole service come into play: the ordinands and the Bishop together kneel, and there is a period of silence. Then, the Bishop sings, unaccompanied, the first line of the ancient hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, in its English translation (‘Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire’). The congregation joins in thereafter to sing the rest of the hymn, unaccompanied throughout, to a medieval chant melody. This kind of chant, sung by the people, is not a common sound any longer. To hear the sustained singing of such chant by the congregation seemed to me an especially powerful demonstration – through silence, and then sound – of what was happening at this particular moment in the service. Just before the ordinands had knelt, the Bishop had instructed them to ‘Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit’. There was then a period of silence, and after that, by their singing ‘Come Holy Ghost’, the entire congregation – not just the clergy – invoked the Holy Spirit, asking that the Holy Spirit come into that space, where the ordinands kneel. The presence of the Holy Spirit, brought into that space by the whole community’s singing, is needed for this sacrament to take place.

This link will take you to a video of the ‘Come Holy Ghost’ hymn being sung by the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. This is beautiful, and expert, and perfectly timed, but somehow, for me on this occasion, the congregation’s non-professional but sincere invocation of the Holy Spirit, through song, seemed to create the perfect effect.

Finally, after the Dean introduces words of welcome, words which are then spoken to the newly ordained priests by the congregation, there was more unusual sound (at least unusual for the middle of a church service): a loud organ fanfare, and enthusiastic applause. This was a great, impressive, and joyful moment of noise-making and affirmation and congratulation. But it was the sound of the silence surrounding the kneeling ordinands, and then the congregation’s calling in of the Holy Spirit by its collective, ancient, unaccompanied song, that made it clear that something special was happening, in that place, at that moment, through those sounds.


Singing the songs of Mary

The ‘treble’ parts in music are the highest parts, normally sung at Bristol Cathedral by the boy choristers or the girl choristers. Sung services are usually performed by the Lay Clerks, the six or more adult singers who take the lower lines of music (alto or countenor, tenor and bass), with either the girls’ choir or the boys’ choir taking the upper parts, now usually known as the ‘treble’ parts.

On Tuesdays the girl choristers take their turn singing the treble parts at Evensong. Last week the music chosen for the Evensong service caused me to think especially about girls’ voices in this context. As I’ve mentioned in another post, two key musical items that appear at every Evensong are the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. The Nunc Dimittis is the song sung by the prophet Simeon at the end of his life, when he has seen Christ and recognised him as the salvation of the world. The Magnificat is another song, sung by the Virgin Mary on the occasion of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth (the mother of St John the Baptist). The description of this episode is found only in the Gospel of Luke (chapter 1, verses 46-56). After Mary has been told by an angel that she is to become the mother of Jesus, she accepts God’s will in that matter by her words: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38). As Luke’s Gospel then goes on to say, the angel who had told Mary what was going to happen to her left, and Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was then pregnant with her own child, John the Baptist. Elizabeth immediately recognised that there was something special about Mary at this point: her unborn child leapt in recognition of the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth praised Mary for her faith, and Mary responded with the words that we now call The Magnificat. The English translation, taken from the Book of Common Prayer, is the one used during Evensong at the cathedral. It reads as follows:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :

As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.

(For the Latin text, opposite this Book of Common Prayer text, see here; For a more modern translation, see here)

The word ‘Magnify’ here is a fairly literal translation of the Latin ‘magnificat’, the first word (or incipit, the Latin word for ‘it begins) in the text which gives the song the name by which we know it. This practice of using the incipit of a piece of music or a text to identify it has been a common one since the middle ages. More modern translations of the Bible forego the word ‘magnifies’ however, and use the word ‘glorifies’ or ‘praises’ instead. The song is Mary’s praise of God, and of what he has done. She also recognises that she herself is particularly blessed, and will be recognised as such, in her status as the mother of God (‘from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’).

The texts of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are unvarying, the same every time, but these words can be put to many different musical settings. Last Tuesday (13th June) featured the settings by the English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576 – 1623). Weelkes is said to have written more settings for Evensong than any other composer of his time: the one used on Tuesday evening was his Fourth Service of nine, and is often named the ‘Service for Trebles’. This doesn’t mean to say that the service is sung only by trebles, but that the technical strengths and elastic range of the young, treble voice are particularly showcased in these settings. However unlike other settings of this period – where typically the top two lines of music would be sung by treble and ‘mean’ voices (pitched a fourth lower) – Weelkes brings the top two lines of music much closer in tessitura and vocal complexity. For example, both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis open with treble solos singing in canon, which repeat throughout the settings with solo treble verses. The organ accompaniment also doubles the top two lines, emphasising how exposed and challenging the treble vocal writing is. The effect produced by Weelkes in doubling the treble parts is electrifying. There isn’t a convenient recording of this available on YouTube or otherwise freely available on the internet, to my knowledge, but recordings are available, both in CD form, and via streaming services, and it is well worth listening to. That said, the two recordings to which I’ve had access – that by Durham Cathedral Choir and Portsmouth Cathedral Choir, are both a little marred by imperfect tuning, and the evident struggle of the trebles to manage some of the highest notes comfortably: it is very hard!

In Bristol’s latest rendition of this Magnificat ‘for Trebles’, all nine of the choristers that were present that evening sang a solo at some point. This made the piece a stunning demonstration of one of the most marvellous features of choral singing of this sort: a corporate unity of sound achieved by the bringing together of many individual voices. To be present in the Quire to see, as well as hear, the performance of this particular Magnificat was especially gratifying, as one could see the individuals who were singing each solo line, and watch the way in which they interacted with the conductor and with one another. This Magnificat opens with a single voice taking the first line: ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, echoed by another voice, on the other side of the quire, joining in almost immediately, just after the first girl has sung the first word, ‘My’. The two solo voices, either side of the quire, weave around one another through the lines ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ Then another solo, a longer one this time, takes the third line ‘For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden’ before she is joined by another voice, again across the space of the Quire, to repeat and amplify the words ‘the lowliness of his handmaiden’. It was at this particular point that it struck me how apt it was to hear these words sung by girls. These particular soloists were the most experienced choristers, in years 9 and 10, and thus around 13 or 14 years old – just about the age that, according to tradition, Mary would have been when she became the mother of Christ. Suddenly, in the voice of these girl choristers, the words of the Magnificat sounded different, and quite strikingly beautiful and meaningful. This is not to say that the text doesn’t work in the voice of a boy chorister – after all, all church ritual and music is performed in a process of ‘standing in’, within a role. Priests and singers alike are not meant to be performing the liturgy ‘as themselves’. Nonetheless, there is something arresting in hearing the words of the young Mary, mother-to-be, in the voice of a young girl. This is not an effect that the composer would ever have imagined, since choristers were all boys at the time when Weelkes was writing. But it is a lesson in the ways in which the sound of such music can change as practices change, and in the ways that audience reception of such music can develop also, as different thoughts and reactions can be evoked by different performances and by different singers.





It’s the taking part that counts

It’s vital that our research takes in account as many first person responses as possible. This means that we are not only interviewing members of the Chapter and the people who work in the cathedral on a daily basis, but also members of the public who visit and worship here, whether it’s their local church or the very first time they’ve visited a cathedral. It’s important to gather a wide scope of responses, not only to ensure that our research is balanced but to reflect the experience of change in season, light, sound, activity and demands on the cathedral space throughout the year.

We need your help to do this! At the back of the nave, near the Welcome Desk, is a box containing forms where you can let us know your own thoughts on how you experience sound and silence. You can write as much or as little as you like and we’d encourage everyone (including children) to get involved. Some of the questions you might like to think about are:

  • What did you hear when you first arrived in the cathedral today?
  • How does the experience of sound change as you move about the building?
  • Where can you find silence in the building?
  • Do the sounds you hear make it easier or harder to connect to the history of the building?
  • Are there any seasons or special occasions in the cathedral that you associate with particular sounds?
  • Do the sounds inside the cathedral help you feel connected or disconnected from the city?

If you have any questions or want to contribute to this project, but don’t have time to visit the cathedral, you can drop us an email: or find us on twitter:




Making new music

It is with great excitement that we can now announce our collaboration with two student composers from the University of Bristol, who have taken on the challenge of producing a new commission written in response to the Sound and Silence project. Following a lively conversation with Dr Emma Hornby and Dr John Pickard in the Music Department, it was decided that Sara Garrard, a second year PhD student, and David Bevan, who having just finished his undergraduate studies, is going onto a Master’s in composition – would be fantastic additions to the project.

Both composers have been set slightly different tasks. David, with his background in sacred choral repertoire, has been asked to write something for one (or all!) of the cathedral choirs, taking into account the large forces of adult and chorister voices available and the organ, a distinctive part of the cathedral’s soundscape since its installation in the late 17th century. With this in mind we have asked David to think about the different acoustics you might encounter as a singer at the cathedral, from the passageways of the cloister and side aisles, to the sonority of the Nave and glimmering reverberations of the Eastern Lady Chapel. We have also asked David to draw on a liturgical text setting, giving his composition the flexibility to be performed during a service or as a standalone concert piece. As David writes:

‘In response to the Sound and Silence project and inspired by the tragedy of recent terrorist atrocities throughout the world, I am working on a setting of ‘Vox in Rama’; the communion antiphon for the feast of the Holy Innocents.’ 

In contrast, Sara’s composition will be written and performed by Schola Cantorum. Schola, directed by Emma Hornby, is a small choir made up of only female music students, who specialise in medieval music, but often perform new compositions. This is a group Sara knows well, having sung and composed works for them before. The brief for this second composition is much more open and can draw on some of the more secular aspects of our research – the way sound can change an experiential sense of a building, how time can be marked by silence, what sounds remind you that the cathedral can be a shared space in the city. Sara writes of the commission:

‘I really enjoy writing for Schola Cantorum. It could be said that with the group’s repertoire ranging from very old to very new, we connect the centuries in our voices just as the fabric and space of the cathedral spans the years. Who has sung these notes, or used this space and shared these silences? We attached different meanings to silences; there are different kinds of silence; within the space of the cathedral, there are many different ways and times in which, as in a piece of music, ‘silence may be kept’. In my writing I have been much concerned with the relationship between text and meaning to sound and music. I anticipate that adding to this a specific consideration of silence itself and meanings beyond words, will add a new dimensions to my compositional thinking.’

Both commissions will be submitted by the end of the summer and performed later this year. We hope that Sara’s work will received its debut performance with Schola Cantorum at the Brigstow Institute Showcase on Tuesday 24th October at the The Station in Bristol city centre.





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.


What music might you hear in the Cathedral services?

Did you know that every month Bristol Cathedral puts online a music list that tells worshippers, and visitors what music will be performed and by whom, at every service in the coming month? You might be familiar with the ‘What’s On’ page, which lists concerts, recitals, exhibitions, and special events, but the services music list is a valuable addition and can give people an extra set of information about the music they might be able to hear within the regular services at the cathedral. Everyone is always welcome to attend a service, whether a regular worshipper or not, and from any faith, or none. If someone is thinking of attending, say, a weekday Evensong, and loves the music of Vaughan Williams, but isn’t so wild about Haydn, they could discover from the music list which services might appeal to them especially. That hypothetical visitor, with their interest in Vaughan Williams might find next Tuesday, May 23rd, a good time to visit: the choir will be singing Vaughan Williams’ anthem ‘Valiant-For-Truth’, with its text taken from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1678 (sung in the video by Westminster Abbey Choir on the occasion of the memorial service for Sir Laurence Olivier in 1989). Equally, those who might have attended a service, and heard a piece that made an impression on them, but they had not remembered what it was, can look it up afterwards. The music list also shows when the services might be sung just by Lay Clerks, the adult men and women only, altos, tenors and basses. (Lay Clerks normally sing alone – that is, without the boy or girl trebles, the high voices – on Friday evenings.) Or if someone wanted to hear what a service sounds like when it is sung just by the boy choristers, that often happens on a Wednesday, with music that is appropriate for treble voices only. There is now an archive of music lists available on the Cathedral website going back to the beginning of 2015, and we hope that we might be able to add more as part of this project. Take a look, see whether there is anything there that piques your interest, and come and listen!