Saturday, May 04, 2013

A requiem for Philip II

As dawn breaks and church bells toll slowly all over Toledo, an elaborate funeral procession winds its way through the city's streets. Clad in black vestments of mourning, the Archbishop leads the procession, followed by the upper echelons of ecclesiastics and then the nobility, each in turn, according to his rank. The cort├Ęge stops at several pre-determined locations where the choir sings a responsory, each station representing a stage in the journey of the soul of the deceased towards eternal salvation. As the dignitaries enter the Cathedral, usually dark and sombre, they are overwhelmed by the light of thousands of candles covering the funeral monument, or catafalque, a vast construction as hight as the cathedral itself, engraved with Latin tributes in honour of the deceased. Silence descends upon the church, and the solemn invitatory Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis begins the Matins of the Dead.

On a wet Friday evening in Glasgow we experienced a wonderful performance of A Requiem for Philip II by Cristobal de Morales *(c.1500 - 1553) in the acoustically fantastic central hall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The above comes from the programme note, and Paul McCreesh, directing the Gabrieli Consort, set the scene before the singing began. We were told the performance would last about 70 minutes without a break, and would be liturgical in feel. As you can see from the photo of the performers' waiting seats (and bottles of water!), taken from my seat, we were at the front, very close to the singers.

The seventy minutes passed without my noticing them. I have never been so immersed in a performance, so swept along on a tide of plainsong and polyphony that I never once looked at my watch. The singing was peerless - four countertenors, two tenors, four baritones, two basses and, doubling the bass part, the muted bajon (dulcian) - with solo groups and tutti ensembles, solo plainsong prayers and readings  and the full-bodied singing of the mass. I felt I was a part of it; it's the kind of music I love to sing and I felt every cadence, every nuance, every false relation in such a way that when it was finished I was exhausted in the same exhilarated way that I feel after singing myself. The moment when the singers turned and walked off the stage and away in a long, singing procession round two of the adjoining galleries was electrifying. I also realise how privileged I am in that my education and subsequent experience in choirs mean that I can understand Latin well enough to participate in what is being sung without constantly referring to the programme, and that I was sufficiently familiar with the words of the mass and the plainsong customarily used for, say, the Sursum Corda to be immersed in the liturgy and to delight in the resonant tones of the bass singing the priest's part.

I realise as I write this that I'm doing a very inadequate job of conveying a very special occasion. The sizeable audience, completely silent and still for the whole performance, didn't erupt in applause; rather this began slowly, gently, as people shook themselves from their absorption, and grew to a sustained crescendo as the choir returned for several bows, only dying when the conductor had disappeared down the stairs away from the hall. We hurtled down the road to the ferry in a whirl of exuberance with our heads full of polyphony and caught a ferry within an hour of the last notes being sung.

The kind of evening I don't get very often, the kind of music that makes me glad to be alive...

*You can hear bits of the performance here, as well as buy it!


1 comment:

  1. on the contrary you tell it very well - sounds absolutely wondrful

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