7 Jul 2016
The almost ghostly sound of solemn Plain Chant, the original song of the monks who founded the Isle of Ely Abbey more than a thousand years ago, returned to the spendorous Cathedral this week, filling the silence of the its 1300-year-old nave, its stone pillars rising towards a massive vaulted roof.
It got louder as a slow procession of singers marched slowly down the aisle. Young people of many races, from all over East Anglia and choirs from Bradford and London too, were beginning the concert with an anthem to the Virgin Mary, Ave Maris Stella, sung for centuries in the almost eerie walls of this most atmospheric of cathedrals. Beautiful and simple the music, unaccompanied by instruments, drew us into another world.
As the robed figures, the combined choirs of Gabrieli Roar, opened the 15-30 July annual Cambridge Summer Music Festival in the splendor of Ely Cathedral, we could have been back in the time of Ethelreda, the royal princess and founder of the Abbey of Ely who kept the flame of Christianity alive in a war torn Britain where invading Norsemen and pagan tribes warred with unsparing savagery.
Forced to marry the King of Northumbria she was finally released to fulfill her dream of a band of friends dedicated to peace and prayer, in the fastness of Ely’s island. As the solemn figures passed us, we could have been back in those embattled times with the haunting notes of young voices floating above us.
At the festival-opening concert Monday 4 July, Conductor Paul McCreesh reminded the audience that the sacred music about to be performed by the massed choirs of young people, was indeed ancient and a wonder to have survived the turbulent times when the kingdoms of Britain fought against each other.
The choirs now reunited under the amazing crown of glass above the altar, went on to tackle some highly unusual pieces.
Christopher Tye’s polyphonic harmony came from the 16th century when Queen Mary, on the throne after a brief Protestant rule under the boy king Edward VI, celebrated the return of the old religion by commissioning music to be played in Ely’s small chapels. He reminded us that in those days the place would have been alive with colour and full of sculptures and statues, stained glass and drapes – all removed when the next wave of religious reform swept in, destroying most of the art and relics and leaving the cathedral the austere stone building it is today. Oliver Cromwell, who grew up in Ely, hated the cathedral so much, he banned any music there and even used it for stabling horses in the Civil War.
In one evening, with a large band of brilliant young singers we were exploring not just the music of our country, but its violent history as well. Unusually the choice of pieces was almost entirely English. We heard Libera Nos by John Sheppard, a 16th century composer writing at a time of religious confusion and oppression, and featuring just a small selection of singers. Their voices were huge though, soaring up to the giant lantern of stone and glass above them where the setting sun shone through the panes as it had back in those dark days where adherents of the traditional Catholic Mass were hunted down by their fellow countrymen and division even in families, became an unhealed fissure in the body politic.
Triumphantly the entire evening ended in the twentieth century. Herbert Howell, writing at another disturbing time, the Second World War has produced a work of wonder, the Gloucester Service. The entire choral collective sang their hearts out in the fabulously modern but melancholy notes of his brilliant Magnificat, the 2000-year-old prayer of Mary as she hears the news the Angel Gabriel brings, a prayer of hope for justice in our time, and for peace between rich and poor, a sentiment which resonates in the era of division now faced by the people of Britain as it was in days gone by. The beauty of the young singers had its own reassurance in faith and the goodness of humanity.
The 37th annual Cambridge Summer Music Festival begins officially 15 July and continues through 30 July.