Sunday, March 8, 2009


The Choir
Ely Cathedral
Cambridgeshire, England

On today's rainy spring afternoon my mother and I headed to rural Cambridgeshire to visit Ely cathedral, the Romanesque/Gothic masterpiece which is one of the architectural wonders of medieval England.

The great church sits imposingly atop the gentle slopes which lead away from the surrounding flatlands. As one approaches the monument, one feels - both literally and figuratively - that one is ascending to a higher plane, an effect no doubt intended by the builders of Ely.

It's a scene which I suppose has changed little in 1100 years, from the time when the cathedral first dominated the surrounding fens and the lives of the peasants who tilled the fields.

I doubt there was anything idyllic about rural existence in those far-off days. It must have been a hard life, subject to the whims of church, nature and political machinations.

Indeed, as I stood dwarfed by the magnificence of Ely, I pondered the bitter irony which lies encased in its ancient stone and mortar.

Although a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and engineering allowed cathedrals to be built, the purpose of these great buildings was not to open the minds of the populace to the revelations of science. It was rather to enslave them through a crippling fear of god and feudal dictate.

Few doubted the literal truth of a vengeful god, devils, angels and other man-made myths. Ignorance of the facts of the universe allowed superstition and blind obedience to hold sway.

And if I'd been a medieval peasant I'm sure I'd have thought no differently.

But if we're not careful, it's rather too easy to scorn the ways of the past, and the church did offer a guiding philosophy to its flock.

This is revealed with startling clarity when you immerse yourself in the sacred music of the period, as my mother and I discovered to our deep joy.

We were lucky enough to enter Ely as the cathedral choir was practicing for the approaching Evensong service. The works they performed - compositions by Byrd and Tallis - soared into the heavens, and American tourists and British weekenders alike stood entranced by their incantations.

There is surely no sound as heavenly as that of the human voice, reverberating around the walls of a great cathedral in praise of the mystery of creation.

As a boy, I sang male soprano with my school choir, performing hymns, madrigals and oratorios by Wesley and Handel. To participate in such music, whether as a listener or performer, is a holy, uplifting experience.

Though I'm not a religious believer, during my time at Ely I was overcome with wonder for the very fact of existence. I gave thanks for the charitable and communal impulses which Anglicanism has long engendered in Britain's national character.

It was this tenuous continuity between past, present and future which the cathedral choir expressed in its moving rendering of the liturgy, and I remembered - a little to my surprise - how glad I am to be an Englishman, to possess by accident of birth a connection with a long and colorful history.

As the choir ended its practice, my mother and I left the great church. It was then that the rain clouds suddenly parted, and we laughed and smiled at one another with joy and gratitude.


Brian Dron said...

Welcome back to Blighty! Are you planning any other European cities in your visit?

As a raging non-believer, I agree with you that the music can still be wonderful.

Enjoy the nasty weather, and have a pint for me!



Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hey Brian ! Good to hear from ya and thanks for posting.

Will be off to Barcelona next week, won^t be able to get to germany unfortunately!!