When the Bagni di Lucca head librarian ventured on her first trip to the UK last year it was recommended to her by an English music teacher who lives in the comune that to experience a supreme musical experience in that country she should attend evensong in one of its cathedrals.
Reaching our last full day in London we hadn’t yet attended evensong but after visiting two newly opened exhibitions (Victorian sculpture and Victorian photography) at Tate Britain we found we were in time to participate in the vespers of Britain’s Roman Catholic mother church, Westminster cathedral.
Built by John Francis Bentley and completed in just ten years in 1902, Westminster cathedral demonstrates the architect’s deep understanding of Byzantine architecture. He’d studied St Mark’s basilica in Venice and also Constantinople’s Hagia Sofia. But Bentley’s unusual choice of the Byzantine style wasn’t just an aesthetic one: the brick construction could be quickly and more economically built than the prevailing neo-gothic style of the time and a wide nave implemented.
The only problem was decorating these vast expanses of three domes and buttresses, something that is is still ongoing. Using marble for the piers and mosaics for the ceilings there are only two parts of the cathedral brought to decorative fruition. These are the chapel of the Holy Sacrament and the Lady chapel where we attended vespers yesterday evening.
Interestingly, features have been borrowed from other Italian churches. The crypt, for example, is modelled on Milan’s San Ambrogio and the high altar baldacchino oddly reminded me of the one I’d seen at San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome last year.
From the start of its consecration Westminster cathedral has placed great emphasis on its choral tradition and, especially, the use of Gregorian plainchant and renaissance polyphony years before these were properly revalued in the Anglican church. Indeed, Stanford, a major Victorian composer, would suggest to his students to go to to the cathedral “to hear polyphony for a penny” (cost of a bus ride then!).
Although we might have been accused, in Alexander Pope’s words, ” to church repair not for the doctrine but for the music there”, we were happy to suffer the accusation. The singing of the vespers in the Lady chapel was superb and when, in the Magnificat, the plainchant gave way to six-part polyphony the effect was transcendent – so much so that we stayed on for the Mass which followed and included a sacred piece by Poulenc, though not the Gloria which, during Lent, is, of course, omitted from the Ordinary of the Mass.
Italian churches and cathedrals do not lack inspired or even listenable choirs, for example the one we sing in at Ghivizzano, but for pure perfection, stylistic integrity, vocal homogeneity and heavenly beauty there is nothing to beat the best English cathedral choirs. Indeed, I would go one further and state that my personal preference is for Westminster cathedral choir with its warmer, less religiose, timbre. No wonder composers such as Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Tavener have written for it.
Vespers and Mass at Westminster cathedral was for me a fitting conclusion to my little escapade to London. I’m sure I won’t wait so long to return to this ever-changing, ever fascinating world city.