St Albans Cathedral away weekend: A retrospective

I’ve just arrived back home from an absolutely brilliant weekend of singing on tour with Vivamus at St Albans Cathedral, and I’ve managed to end up in a bit of a Wikipedia hole. (Check out my links in this article – I’m not joking.) I think Vivamus’ readers may find what I’ve learned quite interesting in a niche sort of way, so I’d like to tell you all about it.

Before I begin, I’ll be honest: I’m definitely no music history scholar. Despite doing the Tudors at school, the only thing which stuck was “Divorced, beheaded, died”, as opposed to the ins and outs of papal bulls. So you may want to take this with a pinch of salt. But, a warm welcome to you, and here goes…

Where to begin?

I wanted to write a bit about the immense privilege and utterly joyous feeling of belting out banger (such as Howells’ Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for Gloucester Cathedral) after banger (for example, Mealor’s Ubi Caritas – we may not have had quite as big an audience as when it was performed at Prince William’s wedding, but we got rave reviews from my dad!) as part of a choir. It’s made even better when you’re doing it in one of England’s most beautiful and historic religious buildings. The spine-tingly feeling you get when the choir’s unaccompanied and everything is perfectly in tune (it can happen, with rehearsal and concentration), and you listen to the echo of a final note reverberating off Gothic arches, and there’s a silent audience deep in thought, and you know they aren’t going to clap because it’s the middle of a service, so you just hold and wait, pausing before you take what feels like the first breath of a brand new day… well, it’s like nothing else.

Then I considered writing about singing music by one of England’s most important early music composers 400 years after his death, in a place where the Christian tradition goes all the way back to the 3rd century. There was a neat story I wanted to spin about being part of an English choral tradition that goes back hundreds of years singing plainsong and responses and mags and nuncs. Even for me as a pretty non-religious sort of a person, there’s something amazing about singing music that’s been sung in a place for 400 years, and sharing that aforementioned spine-tingly feeling with people who still come to Britain’s cathedrals to worship in centuries-old fashion.

There was also a nice moment to write about, when some 7 year olds (wearing crusader fancy dress and brandishing plastic swords, naturally) spontaneously stopped and listened to our rehearsal in those beautiful choir stalls. I like to think that perhaps those kids will enjoy singing one day too, and that they’ll keep the choral tradition going.

In addition, I wanted to say something about the excitement of how choral repertoire is evolving. We sang wonderful music by a female composer written for a mixed voice choir founded 25 years ago at a Cambridge college where men have been singing since 1441. Here’s to more great music written by women and other minority groups – there will always be space in my folder for them alongside all the Purcell, Parry and Pergolesi.

A history lesson

All of the above is worth of exploration and celebration. But the thing I found really interesting, and what I was initially quite wrong about, is the bit about Byrd being sung in St Albans since the 1500s.

St Albans Cathedral hosts really good exhibitions about the history of the Abbey and the life of the Church. It’s interactive, so you can learn about how the largest nave in Europe was progressively built by relocating stone from the Roman city of Verulamium down the hill, and how they rebuilt part of the church after an earthquake in the 1200s – all while dressing up in cassocks and doing brass rubbings.

Personally, I was surprised to see a picture of the full extent of the Abbey back in the early 1500s. It was enormous, and must have been home to hundreds of people before it was surrendered on 5th December 1539, during the dissolution of the monasteries. But Byrd was writing his Catholic masses in Latin 55 years later. They were sung clandestinely – not in the grand cathedral settings where we get to sing and hear them now, but in private houses harbouring practicing Catholics who were fleeing persecution in Elizabethan times. So I discovered I was wrong: Byrd wouldn’t have been sung in the remains of the Abbey until much later than I thought. His music was revived in the 1890s, and probably brought back to St Albans as part of the Anglican tradition slightly later.

If you’re sitting in London reading this, I’d encourage you to jump on the train sometime, as St Albans is only 20 minutes from St Pancras. You can see the amazing building and exhibitions for free, and learn something new just like I did. Plus, you can probably catch Evensong after work too.

Warm welcomes

There’s a beautiful symmetry between the story of Byrd writing for Catholics and the story of St Alban, told to us at welcome drinks after our Saturday Evensong by the wonderful new Dean. St Alban, the first English saint and martyr, performed some cool miracles before he was executed after converting to Christianity. He discovered his faith when he harboured an early Christian priest fleeing the Diocletian Persecution in the 3rd century, and the very existence of the cathedral is thanks to that secret practice of his faith. So Byrd in St Albans is a mirror image of real religious challenge followed by acceptance and welcome.

There was a bit of a “welcoming embrace” theme to Vivamus’ trip to St Albans. We certainly felt warmly welcomed by the Dean, her team, and the parish. They were incredibly kind in letting us sing in such a magnificent place all weekend, and we thoroughly enjoyed making music and worship together. We also welcomed new members performing with us for the first time with a cracking Thai meal and a trip to the pub. After all, it wouldn’t be choir tour without a few beers…

If you’d like to join us next time we sing beautiful music in a beautiful setting, you can be confident you’ll have a warm welcome to Vivamus. We’d love to hear from you. It’s such a privilege to be able to sing amazing music in venues like St Albans Cathedral and St Clement Danes. And you never know – you might learn some history too!

As ever, we’re incredibly grateful to our committee, and Rufus and Richard, for making it all happen. And thanks again to the team at St Albans for a wonderful welcome for us in Vivamus.

‘Til next time!

Post written by Sian Cooke.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: