“I can’t disconnect the act of writing music from the act of prayer,” said British composer Sir John Tavener. “If anyone tries to stop me working, it feels like someone is trying to stop me from taking communion.”
I understand what he means. Sacred music – whatever faith you follow – can be a way of touching the divine and revealing the spirit.
All religions understand this, with many using chanted words and instrumental rhythms as often as choral works and melodic compositions. In Pure Land Buddhism, the name Amitabha, which means infinite light, is repeated; in Tibetan Buddhism, throat singing is an integral part of worship.
For Roman Catholics, the equivalent sound is Gregorian or plainchant, which developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. It was substantially revived and renewed in the 19th century at Solesmes Abbey in France, where an official Vatican copy was produced.
But while Gregorian chant may be used in the liturgy, choral music is used to inspire the heart and lift the soul. And there have been choirs based at all the major sites of worship from the moment of their creation. Singing has ranged from the plainsong Offices sung by the monks of the tenth-century monastic foundation to the daily choral services sung by the Choir at Westminster Abbey for more than 1,000 years.
The oldest continuous choir in the world is the Cappella Musicale Pontificia or Papal Choir – in existence since about 600. After the renovation of the Sistine Chapel in 1483, the chapel became its home, and the choir became commonly known as the Sistina. The work of the choir is to be discussed at an event organised by the Pure Land Foundation for China Exchange series in London in October 2016.
The choir itself – which consists of twenty adult singers and thirty unpaid boy choristers – practises three hours a day to produce its sublime sound. One of them is British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who will be speaking about his experiences as a Papal singer for the Pure Land Foundation.
Spyropoulos has said that he is “fascinated” by working at the very heart of the Church and that it touches his faith. He also speaks of being ambushed by unexpected spirituality: “We were singing one of the Palestrina motifs to the empty chapel at 10 o’clock at night. This music goes incredibly deep. It is spiritual, meditative, reflective, mysterious. I had this feeling of being completely transported, somewhere far away. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. That has never happened to me before.”
Such is the transformative power of sacred music that it touches all of us anew, over and over. And it happens even to those most accustomed to hearing and making its sounds.