I spent a wonderful evening on Friday. My husband got us tickets to see The Sixteen perform in York Minster. For those not in the know, The Sixteen are widely acknowledged to be one of the best ensembles around specialising in early church music. The music was sublime. Sacred music makes my soul sing. Whilst I don’t have a God-fearing bone in my body, an exquisite performance of music written by musicians for whom the church was omnipotent always makes my spine tingle.
I was brought up on church music. This was not because we were a particularly religious family but because I used to sing. My music teacher at school was inspirational and he chose girls from the choir to join a small ensemble that he had built up over the years made up mainly of past and truly loyal pupils. Every summer and sometimes in holidays in between we would make the long journey from Lincoln to Canterbury to sing in the cathedral. The full time choristers were school children just like us and so they got time off from their duties in the holidays. And so we used to take up the mantle for a week.
The first time I went I was 13 and knew little about church music and less about churches. I knew the individual pieces of music but had no idea which service they belonged to or how they all fitted together. I spent a lot of that first week missing my entries because I didn’t really know that I should have come in. But gradually I learned what the responses were and how to read a psalter and when the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis fitted in. You see. It’s a different language. And it was a different world. Immediately I had to immerse myself in the solemnity of a cathedral. I became an expert at processing around the building at just the right speed to show purpose and yet respect. I learned what was appropriate behavior whilst sitting in the choir stalls. In fact, it would have been difficult for a child like me not to absorb the atmosphere and carry myself accordingly when I was sitting in a building of such magnitude and sheer, breathtaking beauty.
And I was so proud to be part of it. As we processed through the cathedral to rehearse, the tourists parted for us to pass through. The organ would sound the opening chords of that day’s anthem and we would raise our voices to the heavens and sing. And there was silence but for our music. The tourists would stop walking about and chatting and just stand and listen. We were very good and the music was awe inspiring and filled that majestic building with its beauty.
That feeling has stayed with me and even though I no longer sing myself when I hear sacred music beautifully performed it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up like nothing else has done before or since. And so the concert on Friday was such a treat, not only because of the quality of the music but for what it gave me the occasion to recall.