IN the beginning - before Bruckner, before Beethoven, before even Bach - there was Liturgical Music. The core devices of the western musical tradition - polyphony, counterpoint, harmonic progression - can be tied back to the priests and monks who wrote antiphons, motets and hymns for their daily services 800 or more years ago. Tonight at Trinity Church, I was one of about 50 people who heard one of those traditional services performed live. It was a profound and powerful experience.
In the Anglican tradition, the Wednesday of Holy Week is dedicated to the Office of Tenebrae, a Latin term meaning "shadows". When I entered the church tonight, all the lights were off, and the nave was lit solely by ambient light through the stained glass windows and eleven candles positioned on the altar. It was nearly impossible to see, and so the entire service was sung by the choir, creating a contemplative, mystical atmosphere.
Several of the selections were sung in chant, while others were early examples of polyphony, usefully translated from the original Latin into English. All were beautiful beyond description. As I sat and listened, I lost all sense of time, of place, of any sense of myself outside of this mysterious, ancient rite.
After each selection, an acolyte extinguished one of the eleven candles, while the light outside simultaneously continued to darken. Once all the candles were out, the church was silent for a long time. Then, out of nowhere, a slow rumbling started to build: bass drums, organ, then cymbals and other noisemakers. The sound rose in volume and intensity until it was deafeningly, excruciatingly loud. This was the "Great Noise", meant to mimic the earthquake that supposedly occurred after Christ's death. After the sound finally died out, a single candle was brought out from hiding and placed on top of the altar.
While all this was going on, the choir had descended from the loft and made their way to a side chapel. From there, they began to sing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, a Renaissance masterpiece for double chorus that was once so revered that the Vatican would not allow it to be performed anywhere other than in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. (That is, until Mozart heard it in 1770 (when he was 14), and promptly transcribed the whole thing from memory.) The music faded away, the candle was put out, and everyone left the church in darkness and in silence.
Regardless of your religious persuasion, I strongly encourage those of you in NYC to check out the rest of the extraordinary (and free) musical offerings on hand this week, courtesy of our Episcopal institutions, which seem to have a virtual monopoly on quality liturgical music. Best bets are Trinity, St. Thomas, and, of course, the wondrous St. John the Divine, which puts on the greatest Easter spectacle this side of Rome (though with much better music.)