My mother has always considered her singing voice not one to be inflicted upon others. It’s not as if she hasn’t had encouragement. When attending chapel services during her boarding school days, she hummed along to the hymns. One day, the mother of the headmistress, observing this, swooped over and asked her what was going on. Mother explained.
“It doesn’t matter whether you sing in tune or not,” the woman proclaimed. “Just make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
Mother has been mouthing the words ever since – although, during my childhood, she did sing along to family renditions of Ten Green Bottles.
The choristers at York Minster do a spot more than make a ‘joyful noise’ during their worship.
Evensong (that melodic word with its connotations of peace and calm is enough by itself to make me want to attend) takes place most days, sometimes with a visiting choir. Programmes are available at the desk and services are free, despite being in the pay-to-enter section of the minster.
The elaborate Gothic minster, with its quiet spots and wide spaces, its internal landmarks, its intricate details and sheer scale, seems to me like a fairytale city or forest. The extensive subterranean area, dimly-lit and full of treasures is a must-see. The central tower, legislated never to be outbuilt in York, soars 60m high, providing fantastic views of the city and surrounding land. The worn spiral stairway up to it is an experience too, as one imagines all the people over the centuries who have made their way up there under different circumstances.
It took almost two and a half centuries to build from about 1230 but began humbly as a crude wooden structure in 627. Those of a religious bent or with historical, architectural or artistic interests, will find it chock a block with things requiring their attention. What fun it would be to roam the entire cathedral. Does anyone know it all – the layout of the alley ways and nooks, avenues and arches; the quickest way from tower to tower; what lies behind each door; the view from every window?
The gates at the top of the few steps into The Quire open several minutes before Evensong and are closed during the service. The space is long but not very wide and the pews face towards the centre, creating a feeling of intimacy.
Beware the front stalls with their little gates at the ends. They are majorly uncomfortable with a ridge that juts forward at about head height (on a short person, anyway). The folding chairs down the front are uninviting but the seats at the back are thrones with red velvet seats, solid curved shoulders that encircle the sitter rendering one’s neighbour visible only from mid-thigh down, carved hand rests and wooden posts that link to an elaborate canopy featuring carved angels. A perusal of some of these, numbering in the eighties, reveals a different face on each. One cannot help but think of the craftsmen of yore, imbuing each with individuality.
By the way, the wooden cupboards in front of each seat, enticingly fitted with a keyhole are completely empty. Neatly stacked on the red velvet bench above are a list of service, Book of Common Prayer, hymnal, book of anthems and a pamphlet explaining evensong.
It is a form of prayer, distinctive to the Church of England and other Anglican churches, and is largely unchanged since the first English language “Book of Common Prayer” of 1549. It includes readings along with chantings of prayer and creed.
And there is the music, central to worship since time immemorial. Tenors buzz. Sopranos flow. The animated conductor sings with gusto. His dramatic flourishes carve the air and he ends with hands held high, a physical representation of the final notes hanging in the air, almost tangibly, after the singing has ceased.
I don’t sing. The choir’s noise is so beautiful I simply want to hear it.