HERE at Portsmouth Cathedral last autumn, we dedicated a Trompete de Maris (Trumpet of the Sea) organ stop (News, 29 September 2017). An array of silver trumpet pipes now gleam forth from the clerestory on either side of the west door. The first time I heard them I cried.
This response seemed almost biological, outside my control, as though I am simply programmed to weep when a trumpet sounds. In fact, this first happened to me in Lincoln Cathedral during a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Lord, Thou Hast Been our Refuge, his setting of the 90th Psalm.
There is a stunning moment when the choir has been chanting verses about the brevity of human life. The chant comes to an end, there is a pause, and then, suddenly, the hush is broken by the sound of a single trumpet with the first line of the hymn tune St Anne, “O God, our help in ages past”. The contrast between the grief of our mortality with the call to renewed trust in God was almost unbearable.
Our Portsmouth trumpet stop is truly magnificent. At its dedication, the silver pipes were blessed and censed with due solemnity. They protrude from high in the west end, and you could almost imagine angelic trumpeters blowing into them from outside the cathedral. All eyes turned west as they sounded a stirring Alleluia, commissioned from Neil Cox.
Trumpets are highly scriptural, of course. A trumpet organ stop must be the descendant both of Tubal-Cain (who mined iron and bronze, and worked them into tools) and Jubal, ancestor of those who play the pipe and lyre. Biblical trumpets warn of imminent disaster; they are a call to arms; they mark liturgical time in the worship of the temple. The seer of Revelation heard a voice speaking like a trumpet — which set the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop an interesting challenge when it worked on a radio dramatisation of Revelation. Trumpets sound the praises of God and announce the last day, heralding the resurrection of the dead.
To me, they are the sound of Christian defiance and hope. The defiance is important, because trumpets are meant to be not only loud but also slightly vulgar and hooty, even rude. In the light of Easter, this is what we think of death, this is how we defeat the devil: by the sound of brass and silver, by laughter, by disrupting the sleep and apathy of sin.
In our cathedral, the organ pipes face both east and west, and we worship both in the choir and in the nave. The position of our new pipes in the extreme west means that, wherever you hear them from, they are coming from a distance, from somewhere else. “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead. . .”.
So God interrupts our human slumber with the good news of resurrection.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.