“Best choir trip ever!” “An ethereal experience.” “Humbling.” “I’m exhausted.”
On the evening of August 12, a group of very weary singers, family members and friends arrived back at Christ Church, Glendale, with many memories and emotions. Just twelve days earlier, sent on our way by a blessing from our rector David Pfaff, we had boarded a chartered bus that would take us to Chicago’s O’Hare airport to begin the long journey to England, where we would be in residence for a week at Winchester Cathedral.
For this, our fifth such pilgrimage, most of our usual Sunday choir members were joined by six alumnae from CCG’s girls’ choir, our curate, Father Nick Evancho, our deacon, Anne Reed, and her husband, Giff – twenty-five voices in all. Christ Church choir director Dr. Bryan Mock and our organist for the trip, Bryan’s former student Thomas Heidenreich, joined us in the small cathedral city of Wells. There we spent a restful two days revisiting old haunts from our first choir trip in 2007, touring Wells and Salisbury Cathedrals, and acclimating to the time change.
This journey was the culmination of months of practice and preparation. Our thick stack of music included five different acapella Preces and Responses for Evensong, eight anthems, six different compositions of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, various Anglican chants for the daily psalms, special music for Sunday’s Matins, several unfamiliar British hymns, and two different settings for choral Eucharist, one for the Feast of the Transfiguration which fell during our week.
We arrived in Winchester on Monday and immediately began our exhausting daily routine. Fueled by a full English breakfast (baked beans optional), we hurried to the choir school for morning rehearsal, followed by some precious free time before afternoon practice which immediately preceded each evening’s service. During the next seven days we sang eight services in Winchester Cathedral, including three – Matins, Eucharist, and Evensong – on Sunday.
Winchester is quite a large cathedral city, but our experience still produced a small-town story. After one Evensong, several choir members and friends were enjoying a pint in a lovely courtyard which overlooks the Cathedral green and façade. A distinguished gentleman asked if they would be attending a service while in Winchester. The group then asked him the same question. He answered, “Yes, I will. I am the Dean.” Another “high” point for a few hardy souls was to climb the 213 steps (some the size and shape of a pie server) to the upper realms of the building. They were rewarded with a close-up view of the massive Cathedral bells and a stunning panorama of the English countryside.
In the Cathedral Quire, we sang surrounded by caskets containing the mingled bones of ninth and tenth century Wessex monarchs and by the tombs of several English kings and queens, of famous statesmen and authors (including Jane Austen) and of at least one saint. Seated in the richly carved fourteenth century stalls, we were conscious that we had stepped into a centuries’ old tradition of continuous prayer and worship. We were particularly grateful when, each day during our week, the clergy offered prayers for lives lost to gun violence in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. Some of us were led to wonder how often our own daily prayers remember those outside our immediate spheres.
Perhaps the most memorable day of this pilgrimage was Thursday’s journey to London, where we had the rare privilege of singing Evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral. After going through a security check, receiving our “visiting choir” passes and grabbing some lunch, most of us used the time before rehearsal to wander through this incredible space. We mingled with throngs of visitors, tourists and pilgrims, seeing faces and hearing languages from all over the world. We stared up at the famous dome, spared during the WWII blitz by brave fire watchers too old to fight, who perched outside the dome on ladders and knocked incoming firebombs off with broomsticks. Some of us stood in the undercroft before the modest plaque marking the grave of Hubert Parry, whose moving anthem, “My Soul, There is a Country,” we sang at Winchester.
Later that afternoon, we assembled in the stalls for the brief time we were given to become accustomed to singing in one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. St. Paul’s nine-second reverb apparently disconcerts many visiting choirs, who easily lose cohesion listening to their own echoes. Dr. Mock’s mantra, “Watch me!”, was particularly relevant here. One of the cathedral’s vergers met us to review the order of service and show us how to process. For rehearsal, as is customary, we were dressed in our black cassocks, but each of us was also wearing the small cross issued to all Christ Church, Glendale, choristers. The verger was visibly moved when he noticed our matching crosses, something he said he had never seen in a choir before. We may have started a new tradition at St. Paul’s!
We sang well that evening in a service attended by our largest congregation ever. The main draw for many in the pews was probably not the chance to hear an American choir (“Where exactly is Ohio?”) but the fact that the cathedral waives its hefty admission fee for those who attend Evensong. No matter why they were there, we hope each listener took a bit of inspiration from the Diocese of Southern Ohio home that evening.
Helene Sedwick is a chorister at Christ Church, Glendale.