Music in the Hour Glass
Recently, I attended a clarinet recital in which a modernist composer put his instrument through extreme survival training. A few days later, I was listening to a world-famous choir singing sacred music from the sixteenth century. What connected them?
To begin with, the two events had something contingent in common: they both took place in historic churches. Yet the churches were as unlike as the music. In one, daylight flooded an interior of white plaster and bright gold leaf, while in the other the singers stood by candlelight among deep shadows.
The first venue was a church in central London that has been a worldwide inspiration. Architecturally it was the model for a number of churches in North America and elsewhere, including one in Chennai (St Andrew's Church, Egmore). It is the parish church of the Royal Family when they are at Buckingham Palace and of the Prime Minister. It has a mission to support the destitute and homeless in London. It promotes concerts and recitals. And, it has become the church for London's Chinese, holding services in Cantonese and Mandarin and well as English.
I am talking about St Martin-in-the-Fields, a poetic and Arcadian name for a church that today is in the very centre of the conurbation, at Trafalgar Square.
I was there for a lunchtime recital. First stop, however, was lunch as there is a much-loved cafe in the crypt. You would like this place with its mellow brick arches and low ceiling, its soft lighting and cosmopolitan clientele. The cafe raises funds to support the work of the church and if you explore the basement, you find yourself among tombs and commemorative plaques, including a statue to London's original Pearly King.
This beautiful building is in the European neo-classical tradition: Corinthian columns, pediment, and spire –an exceptionally tall spire. The interior is 18th century baroque, unusual for England, and golden ornamentation glows against the creamy-white walls and plastered ceiling. All is very pleasing and uplifting.
The second venue? This was not in London but in Cambridge: King's College Chapel, founded in 1446 and completed over a century later in the time of Henry VIII. We should hardly be surprised that it took so long to construct. Apart from the fact that England was torn apart in the meantime by a civil war better known as the Wars of the Roses, the sheer scale of the building is impressive. This is no intimate chapel for divine worship by a few scholars. The building is bigger than many a cathedral.
Whereas St Martin-in-the-Fields was constructed in the then-newly exciting style of Palladian architecture, fresh in from Italy, King's College Chapel enshrines the high point of European medieval church building. It is Gothic, not the Gothic revival of the Houses of Parliament, in Queen Victoria's reign, but authentic medieval workmanship. It boasts the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world and some of the finest medieval stained glass. To sit there for evensong as darkness falls outside is to look up, and up, as fingers of light from hidden lamps just hint at small areas of fluted columns and the delicate fans of the high ceiling.
It is famously the venue for its Festival of Carols, broadcast to millions around the world each Christmas Eve. The College Choir comprises sixteen boy choristers, aged between nine and thirteen, and fourteen male undergraduates reading for degrees in a variety of subjects. It is a shock, in the 21st century, to be reminded that this is still an exclusively male choir.
The music was as different as the architecture. I had gone to St Martin-in-the-Fields to hear experimental clarinet music played by an Italian composer, Luca Luciano. He gave us a short piece by Messiaen and an arrangement of a melody by the Brazilian Villa-Lobos. Principally, however, he treated us to new works of his own.
If your taste were strictly for conventional music, you would have been perplexed. Much of the time, he gave us not melodies but sequences of sounds that explored the full range of musical effects that could be achieved on the clarinet. His notes soared in pitch, and then plunged again; he swung from notes that were whispered softly to an explosion of volume at full pelt, and back again. A few people left early. Most stayed – over a hundred – and at the end, he stood by the church door shaking hands with his audience as they left.
By contrast, the choir in King's College Chapel sang Elizabethan and Jacobean church music, including a psalm by William Byrd. They stood in the soft glow of many candles, their voices bringing together separate melodies in dignified harmonies, the European polyphonic arrangement. It was tranquil, timeless, and slightly ethereal. The singing, the candlelight, the choristers in their white ecclesiastical surplices all came to us here in the 21st century across half a millennium. Music flows on through the centuries.
In London, Luca Luciano had introduced his new composition, Sequenza number 2 in A minor, by quoting Gustav Mahler. He had been inspired, he said, by a declaration of the Austrian composer that "a symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything".
These two events did not look beyond the western musical tradition. Nor did the architecture of the churches. There is far, far more in the world.
Together, however, they seemed to represent a perennial balancing act in the arts: one drew us back in time to deep roots of religion and culture; the other swung open a door to novelty and experimentation.