12 July 2016
The last time I traveled to Europe was in the spring of 2012 for a study-abroad semester in Florence, Italy. During one of our early group tours to a small church in Florence, I had a remarkable encounter with beauty in sacred architecture. As we walked into the church, the doorman quieted us, saying with a hush, “Remember to be quiet – there are angels here.” I was immediately struck by the seeming simple beauty and balance of the church. I quickly learned that this was a smaller church designed by Brunelleschi (the same mind who built the famous Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore). The balance I had recognized was truly innate in his designs, for he based the proportions and dimensions for the space on those of the human body: the beauty that my heart recognized in the architecture of the sacred space were the same that were most intimate and literally ‘personal’ to me.
Our tour guide began to speak of the music that was sung in a space such as this, speaking of the human beauty composers utilized and explored in their music. What he said concerning music I will always remember: “Music is a kind of beauty, the most fragile kind. It is not substantive in the same way a painting is. One moment it is there, and the next it was as if it never existed. We cannot grasp at this kind of beauty. It is not something we can hold. It is not something we can keep. We can only experience the fragility while it is there, and deeply yearn for it once it has left.”
There have been many occasions in the past four years since this experience when these words have returned to me. There was something so beautiful in how he spoke of music, something that resonated with my own experience and my own passions for the art. He was able to put into words in a small way one of the reasons I am deeply drawn to music. I was reminded of these words again on Sunday as we traveled to Sussex to sing at the Shipley Arts Festival.
Christ’s Hospital private secondary school sits on a campus that puts many American colleges to shame. The sprawling greens, the ornate stone statuary, the sheer number of buildings — all contributed to the magical impression as one walks onto the main campus. Our concert was held in a beautiful chapel on campus with two school children’s choirs from the area. In addition to making music with beautiful young voices with Dr. James Whitbourn conducting, we had the incredible privilege of a small orchestral ensemble accompanying us, with the concertmaster playing a 1696 Stradivarius violin. One of the orchestral selections was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. It was surreal listening to the fragile sounds coming from an instrument as old as Bach. The beautiful singing melodies based on birdsongs resonated through the rich English wood of the chapel, and the virtuosity of both the accompanying ensemble and the solo violin was extraordinary. To sing in a chapel in an area of the country frequented by Vaughan Williams himself and hearing the beautiful tones of the centuries-old instrument before us was an experience that truly made me feel small.
The beautiful opportunity to make music with so many other talented musicians was truly a highlight of this week. The young voices of the children’s choirs captured in a special way the fragility of musical beauty. Contributing also was the fact that we were singing simple Shaker melodies arranged by Dr. Whitbourn — simple and memorable melodies that carried through the small chapel of Christ’s Hospital carried by young voices and old instruments, disappearing into the stone as our concert drew to a close. It was truly a wonderful blessing to experience such beautiful English music in a richly English sacred space!