A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

Christmas, 1559

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George Wilson Washington, Gloucester Cathedral, The Choir, Looking East, Albumen Print, 1866.
George Wilson Washington, Gloucester Cathedral, The Choir, Looking East, Albumen Print, 1866.

A hundred small fires light up the close. Animals are everywhere.  Sheep cries. At the stroke of the great bell the introit rings out. Rorate coeli desuper. Veni Domine, et noli tardare. Alleluia. This is all most of them will hear. The procession is coming down the close. The costumes struck through and through with gold thread, the books of music full of everlasting beauty, even lapis from the East. This is the color which clothes the Virgin. Light is barely perceptible through the windows. The city of Gloucester leans in on the cathedral like a parent over a child. Those outside attend a rite which they cannot see and cannot hear. The blessed inside now catch the first sight of the line of celebration. A small boy with a censer, other boys carrying books as heavy as they are. And then the gentlemen of the chapel, singers and clergy, speaking to each other in a language only they understand. This is 1559: Latin is a largely a masculine language. The temperature, 40 degrees. After the clergy give the greeting in English we hear what we are waiting for, the first of three great Tudor antiphons that will whiten the high and heavy darkness. Nowadays these pieces seem long, repetitive, and distant. But you must hear them in the censed, vast, cold stones of Gloucester minster to understand their necessary stretching. Upward and upward they go, forcing incredible virtuosity from the boys. Upward and upward, higher into the far corners of the marmoreal structure, corners in absolute darkness. There they hang to mingle in some kind of atonal bliss with the next phrase which is just now being sung. Ecstatic music in the darkness. Ave Regina Coelorum …

Ave Regina Coelorum…Hail Queen of Heaven

Ave Domina Angelorum…Hail Lady of the Angels

These words are sung continuously into the cold air, an environment of ecstasy for the few. Outside perhaps a family tries to find an inn. Somehow these things go toward something. The small into the large, the large forming into a single music which is everything. Christmas, midnight, 1559. Oh,that we were there.

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