‘How would it feel to go to the moon?’

by
10 March 2017

Roderic Dunnett on an evensong-inspired piece in Peterborough

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TO SEE the spacious east end of Peterborough Cathedral packed with primary- school children, all singing their hearts out, would surely be justification enough for the extravaganza mounted there this month.

Even You Song, a 50-minute-long event, brought together a poet, an artist, and a composer, so as to re-enact, broadly, the traditional form of evensong, but inserting new words by the writer and poet Lucy Sheerman. Parts of her atmospheric libretto interact with sections of the liturgy itself, so as to award the latter a fresh and original twist.

The storyline centres, loosely, on an imagined trip to the moon. That may not sound too evensong-like, but you have to hear or read the words to see how mysteriously well the two contrasted aspects fuse together. The secular merges with the sacred, to generate a cogent unified whole. Therein lay the success.

The text begins with a trimmed-down variant of the General Confession, alternating with responses that suggest modern-day penitence: “Anger is a heavy stone in our hearts”; “You have not said sorry.” The Preces pose the question “How would it feel to go to the moon?” to which the cathedral choir, who bore the brunt of the music with distinction, intoned “Imagine the darkness and the silence. . .”

At the heart of the whole work is the idea of wonder. Psalm 8, “I will consider the heavens / the works of your fingers . . . the moon and the stars that you have ordained” adapts to acquire a new life of its own: “Look out of the window, see the vastness of space. . . (the earth) would be magnified / a tiny speck / in infinite emptiness.” The psalmist’s utterances are identified each time by the children (“as the psalm says”), climaxing in the penultimate words: “I will be closer to my creator up there.”

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A thoughtful recasting of Genesis 1 (for the First Lesson) underlines the growing sense of joy in creation: “Darkness and light are partners. You would not know light if you did not know darkness.” “Sitting in the shadows . . . / concentrates the mind / and spirit.” The evolution of sun and moon are wrapped in a sense of awe and gratitude. Such words, finely turned, harness well with this “modernised” form of Evensong.

The Magnificat, sung by the cathedral choir, seemed musically most appealing, almost Messiaen-like, in its clustering harmonies and sequential parallel chords (“He hath shewed strength”). The Second Lesson evokes Hebrews 11, given a new freshness: “Faith is the substance / of things hoped for, / the evidence of things not seen . . . the opposite of faith is fear.” The Nunc Dimittis then rises from the depths, growing over a central drone. The doxology, beautifully intoned by the choir, brought a particular tenderness.

The Creed took up the theme: “You will be a traveller all your life. . . Never think there is nothing more to learn. You’re on a journey and haven’t arrived.” It seems to be prescribing ways of behaving and attitudes to life, culminating in “We have made our decision. There is no going back,” where the choristers soar up to a rather spectacular musical climax.

The collects become a shopping list of items to be conveyed on this imagined moon journey. Taking along a pet cat (“How would she cope with the weightlessness?”) offers a chance for the chorus’s younger members to break out into excitable spoken chanting.

This and the anthem — “What is the sound, / The sound of Space?. . . You look into the abyss — the abyss looks into you” — exemplifies the way Sheerman’s mystical writing feels marginally akin to the metaphysical poets: “Silence is not empty, Push through it and you will / discover something other. Fill silence with music.” At “hubbub and distraction Dragging you down To a world of noise and voices”, the small children do indeed embark on an eager murmuring and chattering. Thereafter, a whispering like the tide washing over shingle creates added atmosphere.

A new hymn, “Take a journey far from here”, followed, featuring a splendidly inventive descant from the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, David Humphreys; and a mysteriously evocative organ voluntary, in which one pattern seems to echo bleeps from outer space. Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s musical score showed up best in those sections where the cathedral choir sang under the Director of Music Steven Grahl’s expressive conducting.

But it was Sheerman’s text that shone brightest, illumined by some projected illustrations evoking the life and domiciles of people interviewed specially for the project. For a community undertaking, Even You Song had a valid unifying message, was impressively conceived, and really rather handsomely presented. A disc of the work will be issued in the autumn.

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