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A Musical Trio

by Michael Ford last modified 26 Jun, 2020 10:24 PM

We continue our virtual tour of the Cathedral's Spirit and Endeavour exhibition with 3 musical items.

A Musical Trio

'String Quintet'

Choral music plays an important part in the life and worship of the Cathedral. And 3 of the pieces in our exhibition relate to music in some way.

Houshiary’s 'String Quintet' refers to a way of making music which is instrumental rather than choral, nevertheless, its upward and interweaving steel ribbons have something of the quality of all music.

A different grouping of stringed instruments played an important part in the life of the poet, George Herbert who from 1630-33 walked from Bemerton to the Close twice a week to hear Evensong and to join in a consort of stringed instruments known as viols, and possibly to sing some of his poems to the accompaniment of a lute. His poem, ‘Church-music,’ ends with words addressed to the music he heard here:

‘But if I travel in your company
You know the way to heaven’s door.’

Written in the following century, Handel’s 'Messiah' is often performed here. Handel wrote of the piece that he would be sorry if it only entertained people; ‘I wished to make them better.’ Can music make us better people, can it lead us to ‘Heaven’s door?’ Perhaps it makes us better because we cannot say what music means – it can put us in touch with the ineffable. The meaning is in the music heard so deeply that, as TS Eliot put it, ‘You are the music, while the music lasts.’ Music gives us a different and special experience of time; music can startle, inspire, re-arrange and restore us. (see Auden’s Anthem for Saint Cecilia’s Day)

Cathedral Tour- Angels Harmony

As we consider Blumenfeld’s 'Angels Harmony', we should remember that angels have two principal functions: they are the messengers of God and they lead the worship of heaven – ‘Sing choirs of angels.’ Scripture speaks of ‘Encountering angels unawares’,(Hebrews 13:2) as though the messengers of God don’t have to have wings but can appear to us in the form of any human being who in some way gives us something important to do or to think about, something which may change our lives.

'Angels Harmony' also takes us back to the experience of music, and more especially choral music in which harmony is created by the perfect blending of the individual voice with those around it. We do not sing as soloists but as part of a harmonious whole, where each voice plays its part in making the harmony of the whole – which is perhaps why a choir is such a suitable image of the experience of heaven!

Cathedral Tour- Threshold of the Kingdom

Mark Wallinger is an artist interested in suggesting that even quotidian and banal experiences can sometimes be seen in a different light, raising our thoughts in a transcendent direction. His 'Threshold to the Kingdom' uses an image of the Arrivals’ Hall at City airport. Wallinger has spoken of his fear of flying as being more a fear of airports, and the guilt feeling induced by the scrutiny of customs. Here we can have an intense feeling of being observed by those who have the power to admit or ban our entry. And that perhaps is why Wallinger has chosen Allegri’s Miserere to accompany his film. The words of the Miserere are from Psalm 51:

‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me...’

The music is intensely beautiful (we might be reminded of the upward movement of Houshiary’s work) and we might simply ‘enjoy’ the sound and ignore the words. And yet in a cathedral we begin each service with a form of confession followed by the reassurance of God’s forgiveness. We begin with what FR Scott called, ‘Bitter searching of the heart.’ A cathedral is also a threshold of the kingdom, a place where we are challenged by the justice of God, our failure and his mercy. While watching this video we might also remember Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ That is one way of describing what we shall experience beyond the gates.

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