ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE CONDUCTOR DANCES

Keep an eye open for your bliss. You can stumble upon it or you can create it. And for all your planning, it may still be a surprise.

I expected a satisfying day in Exeter, South West England. For one thing, they have the Royal Albert Museum and, for another, the cathedral – the heart of the city. The city’s Red Coat Guides would round the day out nicely.

The sign says, "Believed to be the narrowest street in the world. 23" increasing to 45"."

The sign says, “Believed to be the narrowest street in the world. 23″ increasing to 45″.”

I didn’t see the Sword and Cap of Maintenance in the Guildhall. These were a gift from Henry VII to Exeter as an acknowledgement and thank you for dealing with a pretender to the throne in 1497. Apparently, the original cap has been enclosed in a hat rather different in appearance. That is on display, though retired from active duty, and replaced with a replica. As relics go, it’s a close cousin to Washington’s axe with its replacement head and shaft.

In a carpark

Now a carpark

Springs pop up throughout the city – a result of the high water table. The tunnels underneath the city were created for maintenance men to deal with pipes. It was all a bit rough and ready in those days – as one would expect. The men joined the pipes with rags dipped in fat. The cycle of food for the rats and consequent employment for the men presumably made everyone happy.

Shops in the river bank.

Shops in the river bank.

Stepcote Hill may have begun as Strip Coat Hill. People entering through the west gate would have laboured up it into the city.

Exeter, Stepcote Hill

"The House That Moved"

Next to Stepcote Hill: “The House That Moved”

This bridge dates from the twelfth century when it spanned marshes. The church on it was named after St Edmund because he sought refuge under a bridge. It still provides what looked like permanent shelter for one woman.

Note the different shaped arches.

Note the different shaped arches.

And this was all very well but, yielding to the attraction of extremes, I wanted to see the longest uninterrupted medieval vaulted ceiling in the world (about 96 m, 315 ft). And so I came to Exeter Cathedral, initially ‘built’ by William the Conqueror’s nephew and consecrated in 1133.

Exeter cathedral vaulted ceiling

A number of other features set it apart. It is the only cathedral in the UK with two towers. (The church in the town of Ottery St Mary was modified in 1337 to become a mini replica.) The Exeter cathedra, or bishop’s throne – that which differentiates church and cathedral – is an impressive 18 m (59 ft) high. The cathedral also contains the earliest set of misericords (mercy seats) in the UK and the minstrels’ gallery in the nave is unique in English cathedrals.

Exeter cathedral astronomical clock

Hickory Dickory Dock
This astronomical clock
While keeping the time
Gave rise to the rhyme
And there’s a hole in the base for the cat.

The library contains important manuscripts including the Exon Domesday book. My Red Coat Guide said that, as the Bodleian library was being set up in Oxford, a Bodley brother in Exeter offered this book for inclusion. His brother declined – possibly because it was a bit scrappy in appearance. It is now worth £2million.

The stone employed in the image screen (the front of the cathedral) is from the village of Beer. Apparently, it’s soft to quarry and carve then hardens with exposure – rather like oversized fimo for adults. England’s biggest facade of 14th century statuary, it was once painted in bright colours (and, according to my guide, pink-washed during the civil war). The muted colours that we associate with churches today is not representative of their history– they were once places of visual revelry.

How much does the appearance of a church – colours, scale, visual art – shape our response to its teachings? Do we respond differently to the same words delivered in a cathedral and a tiny wooden church, for instance? Would we go on our way from a gaily-coloured place of worship more glad of heart than from a sombre one?

Consecration marks

Consecration marks

In any case, the remarkable Exeter cathedral, thrilled me in a way I did not foresee.

I had seen online that it was to host a concert to mark the 30th anniversary of Wren Music. I hurried from my walking tour and was whisked in the door by a lively dance tune played by two folk orchestras from Devon. The programme featured waltzes, traditional tunes from around the world, songs of protest and solidarity, music to make one weep and tap and soar. Six conductors took command…and magic happened.

A conductor’s movements are a physical representation of the music – both another way for the audience to experience the sound and a delight in themselves. Two conductors gifted us richly.

It was easy to imagine the members of the youth group, Roots Acoustic, waking up each Saturday and smiling at the thought of music that afternoon with Becki Driscoll, composer and conductor. In the cathedral, surrounded by sweeps and columns of marble, violinists swayed, guitarists’ heads pecked the beat…and Becki Driscoll danced. She danced the music we heard, creating it as she did.

conductor in Exeter cathedral

Paul Wilson invited a group of women in the centre of his large choir to begin a Sardinian song. As their voices held, firm and mellifluous, he wheeled one outstretched arm like a ballet dancer. A finger snapped out and pointed to the end of the cathedral above the audience’s heads. ‘Project,’ it said. He folded more singers into the song. The hem of his dusky-red jacket shook as his upturned fingers trilled, asking for volume.

conductor in Exeter cathedral

I found myself smiling broadly; this was deep pleasure.

With movements elegant, eloquent, crisp and graceful he lifted the voice of his choir to the ribbed vaults. Our human hearts fluttered like reflections on brass within the ancient giant heart of the cathedral.

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6 responses to “ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE CONDUCTOR DANCES

  1. I loveedral. Exeter is just an hour’s train journey from my parents’ home, and I love going there just to walk around and have a cream tea. I love Exeter Cathedral, and listening to singing there brings me out in goosebumps and make tears spring to my eyes. There is something moving about choirs, but in the volume of the Cathedral, it become a magic experience.

  2. The final paragraphs transported me beside you, gave life to the memory of that music and the vim of the conductor.

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