Glimmering Light

I came away thinking: how can I convey in words what I have just heard? For someone who’s not been here, how can I describe it to them? If felt impossible to recreate that sound in writing. I’ll try.

St Giles’ Cathedral, just after dusk. A short concert of choral music, a programme entitled Glimmering Light. An all-women choir, unremarkable, troop out to take their places. Individually, they are inconspicuous, each the sort of person you’d be hard pushed to describe afterwards if they served you in a shop. No one person stands out, they are dressed as a collective: black slacks and simple, unadorned tops in shades of blue. The informal uniform suits them, I think, these sensible middle-aged ladies, until it becomes apparent it is all a ruse, a disguise for an immense talent manifest as soon as they hear the first piano chord, from which they take flight.

They possess a purity of combined voice that well-schooled, traditional choirs can produce, an emotional, moving sound I feel in my skin. Words – prose and poetry – I feel in my heart, but music, especially live and sitting up close, I feel as a tingling on my skin. The soaring harmonies, the crescendos, the long notes dying away as though being gradually absorbed into the old stone walls of the cathedral, the short bursts of soprano solos, the silence before the audience falls to clapping, the crisp, dry cold that sharpens the notes and holds the echoes: it all combines to calm and enliven me simultaneously.

The programme begins with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – a hymn to Mary’s suffering as she stands by the cross on which Jesus is nailed – an early eighteenth-century version. First, the soprano and altos call to each other, then more voices join in layers to weave a tapestry of sorrow and sadness. Quite a contrast is the mood and tone of three songs that follow, composed by Amy Beach, a turn of the century American composer who used extracts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as lyrics. Her melodies are bright and hopeful, expansive even, and imbued with that anticipative energy one often feels listening to music from the new world. Then comes an Elgar song called The Snow, with long silver notes which the choir holds for an impossibly long time, the shimmering sound disappearing slowly and softly, falling and melting like flakes in the night. The final song, Northern Lights, by Norwegian composer Gjeilo, is the most modern. It is surprising, a little clashing and unpredictable, soft and high, then rolling and fading, which somehow lends a flickering quality to the sound, the way I might imagine the Northern Lights, were ever to see them.

Their collective sound is, I would go as far as to say, divine or devotional, there is something of God in the ancient practice of unaccompanied song amplified by the vaulted arches, notes pouring into corners, chords conjuring acoustic magic as we sit still and silent in the low light of an ancient and hallowed sanctuary, while outside, Edinburgh teems with early evening tourists going for dinner and drinks, and, I hope, hearing a little of the choir’s song leaking from the bones of the building, comforting them on their way into night.

3 thoughts on “Glimmering Light

  1. hi Eimear,
    i go to write each time i read and i read every one as it comes into my mail box. i love your writing- takes me right there!
    thanks, keep writing. i really loved your long poem – a walking tour of city!
    take care, enjoy the Canadians in due time.

    Liked by 1 person

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