Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cathedralesque

I knew it would happen. I expected it, I hoped for it, I’ve sensed it inside me, and I’ve experienced it to some degree in the past few months, yet I was caught off guard when it hit me full-blast last week.

“It” happened during a recent CONCORA rehearsal for our “Extraordinary Concert,” which will be given this Sunday evening, October 23, in West Hartford, Connecticut. (Details about the concert may be found at the end of this post.) "It" is, simply put, a deeper musical understanding. One strives for this continually, of course, but sometimes there are remarkable moments, striking connections, indelible experiences...and when they all come together, well, it's worth writing about. 

It’s hard to explain this all sequentially, as “it” was due to the convergence of disparate experiences: our travels to France in July, my recent preparation of the program notes for this concert, and my first experience singing a particular piece of music in a CONCORA rehearsal last week.

Where to start??

First, France… D, K, and I enjoyed three wonderful weeks in France in July, where we visited many, many fine Gothic churches and cathedrals. We spent hours in those magnificent edifices, marveling at their size and greatness, examining tiny details within their walls, and glorying in the sheer human achievement represented by their conception, design, and construction.

Second, program notes… A few weeks ago, as I prepared the program notes for this concert, naturally I carefully studied the text and music of every piece on the program, including “Saint Teresa’s Bookmark,” by Connecticut composer Ed Tyler. I read about Teresa of Ávila and her “bookmark,” and studied Ed’s setting of this beloved text. As I looked at his score and noticed the succession of tall chords that progress from page to page, I was reminded of the long rows of tall stone columns in the churches we had visited, and I incorporated that image into my note:

During her lifetime, Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582; born Teresa Sánchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada in Ávila, Spain) was a beloved Carmelite nun and church reformer who enjoyed a large following, due to her “charming wit and common sense” but probably due also in large part to her ecstatic mysticism and unworldly visions, which formed the basis for her books and teachings. A calmer sense prevailed in the lines she penned on the bookmark of her Breviary, which was found in her hands after her death. The poem known ever after as “Saint Teresa’s Bookmark” expresses profound, unshakeable faith in God. The setting by Edward Tyler (director of the Manchester High School choir participating this evening) offers an effective representation of Teresa’s faith, with tall richly-harmonized chords progressing in steady fashion, much like the tall, sturdy columns in the cathedral at Ávila where Teresa is remembered today.

Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.
The “column” metaphor seemed reasonably clever, and I hoped that Ed would appreciate it. But I could not have known how true it was, until I experienced it vocally, physically, viscerally, and intellectually, in that CONCORA rehearsal.

Finally, rehearsing with CONCORA... Led by CONCORA’s Artistic Director Rick Coffey, we – thirty CONCORA artists – had worked through Ed’s amazing, beautiful setting, and were singing it through a final time (“Perform it for each other,” Mr. Coffey had urged) before putting it away until our next rehearsal. Mr. Coffey had asked us to sing the Tyler without vibrato, and we responded with a full, clear, resonant radiant sound that the room could barely contain. As often happens with CONCORA, we were able to achieve real beauty and depth even in our first read-through; it was very beautiful, indeed.

But the experience took me far beyond the music; as the music swelled, I found myself flooded by memories of the churches we had visited in France, and I was overwhelmed by a visceral, visual conception of Ed’s setting that became instantly clear within my heart and mind. Teresa’s words – calm, confident, steadfast – are indeed like the arrays of pillars that guard the nave of a cathedral like ranks of ancient apostles. As we sang together, I felt sure that Ed’s setting was a musical pilgrimage around the perimeter of a cathedral.

When I got home from rehearsal that evening, still rather stunned, I had to write it down, else I knew I would not be able to sleep. It's hard to make sense of this all. Here is a description of each portion of Ed's motet, followed by the part of my "cathedral memory" that corresponds.


 K in Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d'Auxerre
The Tyler is ravishing. It is cathedralesque.
The music begins in subdued fashion, with a single voice, then two, then three, each one lower than the first, in a gently walking rhythm. (“Nothing, nothing…)  
I enter through the small door cut into the great portal and stand for a moment in the dimness.
The upper voices enter and immediately begin to climb. (Let nothing disturb thee, Let nothing affright thee…)

As I advance from the portal, the space begins to open above my head and in front of me, stretching into the dimness.
The musical phrases progress in stately fashion, one very much like the next, except for an almost imperceptibly richer harmonization in each phrase. (Let nothing disturb thee, Let nothing affright thee…)

Entering the side aisle, I walk slowly down the length of the cathedral, behind the massive piers, noting the dimly-lit chapels to the side, but overall, remaining exquisitely aware of the soaring nave and the columns which seem stretch to heaven.
The pace slows, the voices come together, and there is a harmonic pause. (All things are passing; God never changeth…)

I reach the end of the side aisle and enter the ambulatory, where I pause in the half-light behind the altar. I look up to the ribbed and arched ceiling of the apse, then through the finely-wrought iron screen, across the choir into the nave, still half-hidden to my sight.
The music continues, building, climbing, strengthening once again, blossoming into tall columns of sound and cresting in a high arch of sound that floats in the shimmering air. (Patient endurance attaineth to all things…)
I leave the apse, move down the side aisle, and enter the transept, where I stop in awe. The rose windows at either end of the transept... The convergence of ribs in the arches over the crossing... The impossibly high ceiling of the nave, revealed at last in floods of light from the clerestory, a high arch that floats in the shimmering air…
As “all things” resonates in space, the music resumes with the same passages we heard at the opening: a few voices in walking rhythm (“Nothing, nothing…) over which the treble voices rise. (Who God possesseth, in nothing is wanting; Alone God sufficeth.). The music eventually subsides into quietness.
I re-enter the side aisle and make my way back the length of the church, passing another row of candle-lit chapels… When I reach the shadows under the organ loft, I am reluctant to leave… I turn into the nave and make my way up the center aisle to the choir.
Finally, an exquisite “Amen” blossoms forth, where contoured, intertwining melodic fragments open the exquisitely curling petals of a new rose.
From the choir, I look back, where a magnificent rose window graces the wall above the western portal. I spend a long time looking at the rose window, becoming lost in its delicate, curling stone traceries.
Somehow, Ed found a way to depict, in sound, the enduring architecture, the steadfastness of Teresa's faith, and the wonder that inevitably springs up in one's heart in the midst of all this musical-architectural beauty.

I could not have experienced "it" had I not had the combined experiences of travel, study, and singing. I am very grateful to have these richnesses in my little life.

Come hear this music for yourself. It's just one glorious selection in a program full of marvels.

*********************************

CONCORA
An Extraordinary Concert
Sunday, October 23, 2011 – 7:30 p.m.
Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, West Hartford

Tickets are selling quickly!
Contact the CONCORA office to reserve your seat.http://www.concora.org/    860.293.0567    contact@concora.org

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www.grace-notes.com http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/

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