A few weekends ago I sang in York Minster. That’s the cathedral in the centre of York – and it is beautiful. I was part of the visiting choir The Howells Voices led by Sebastian Thomson,* singing in four services over the weekend. Sat in a pub with a view of the cathedral spire over our roast dinners we googled ‘Minster’ and found that it was an honorific title given to a church, but nobody could quite work out how one would qualify.**
We cut through some ace tunes – some Bairstow, Howells (of course!), Harris, to name a few, polished up some Psalms, and learnt a set of responses by composer Philip Moore – who happened to be in the congregation on the Sunday during Evensong. Evensong, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is like feeling the sun set in early winter. Everything seems to go cooler around you (especially in old, stone buildings!), the air is still and you find yourself listening for sound even in the silences. Can you tell I am a fan?
The highlight for me was singing the Psalms. There is something about this music that is slightly hypnotic. The four voices of the choir (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) sing the words in unison, and the notes in harmony. The rhythm is more like spoken words than sung music, the emphasis matches where you would have it in spoken language, and it is set to a very simple tune. Sometimes almost the whole line is sung on one note, only moving at the very end, sometimes the movement is elsewhere; there are vertical lines marked in the text so that you know when to move on. Every time the same tune comes around it sounds different. The knack is to get the hang of the notes quickly so that you can concentrate on the words, and when you need to move on to the next note – good multitasking practice.
And the best moment of all? Listening to the echo of the voices slide off the cathedral walls after the last note has been sung.
*Seb is a choral director, organist and teacher – you can find his website here
** Disclaimer: all information was gleaned from the internet and may or may not be super-accurate
Photographs used by permission