Well, we have come, once again, to the setting of the sun in beautiful Ely, twilight is falling, and I am plum tuckered out! Today was the first of our Evensong days so we fell into a routine of twice daily choir rehearsals and other excursions.
Last night wasn’t the best, sleepwise, as our hotel rooms have duvets and thus, no sheets. It was a bit warm and even with the window open it wasn’t that comfortable as there wasn’t a whole lot of air circulating. I’m sure you’re thrilled to read about my sleeping habits.
Breakfast was a solidly English affair, with eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, fried tomatoes, mushrooms, and other foodstuffs. It went over quite well and kept us all going through the aerobics in the cathedral some of us were in for later in the day. The nice thing about how breakfast is arranged is that it’s a sort of “drift in and out” arrangement and there is no “count off” which usually accompanies all our activities to make sure everyone is accounted for.
Our first stop of the day was the choir room in the cathedral, located in the South aisle about halfway down the nave. The door has an electronic keypad lock (which later proved difficult for yours truly) and leads to two rooms: one with music desks and wardrobes, the other with a large work table in the center with shelves stacked with music scores. The interesting thing is how small the rehearsal room actually is, at least for the Trinity Choir. Neither our tenors nor basses had music desks, which made things a little tricky at times and the room was rather stuffy with all of us crammed in there but it worked.
After rehearsal we had a bit of time before we were meant to meet at the cathedral for our tour. Anne Chisham, our tour director, met us there and we divided into two groups as there were only so many of us the cathedral tour guides could handle (you know how rowdy choir members get) and so Choir II (the one I’m in) went off with our guide David Edsall and Choir I went off with a different tour guide whose name I can’t recall. David was extremely knowledgeable about Ely Cathedral and gave us a mini-lecture on its history which, for myself, was fascinating and highly entertaining. David had a great sense of humor and answered all of our questions with ease.
The history of the cathedral is long and complex, too long to recount here, but I will endeavor to give some of the main highlights. The monastery was established in 673 A.D. by St. Etheldreda, who had been queen of the area. She was married, but her husband the king died not long after they were married for a few disastrous years. She left the world and became a nun and founded the monastery in Ely, one with a house for monks and one for nuns. That was when the first church on the site was built.
St. Etheldreda died about 6 years after she founded the monastery, but it soon became known that her incorrupt relics were working miracles and so pilgrims started coming to visit her grave. This continued even through all the turmoil that followed. The monastery remained strong for a few hundred years, was sacked by Vikings, fell dormant, was reestablished, and then was taken over when William the Conqueror came through Ely in about 1088. He was the one who had the magnificent cathedral church built that we see today.
The cathedral was finished around 1189 or so but the crossing tower developed problems that eventually led to its collapse on February 13th, 1322 immediately after the Benedictine monks had finished saying a feast day mass in one of the side chapels. William of Walsingham, a monk at the monastery, took over the rebuilding process and decided, wisely, not to rebuild the huge tower but rather, drawing on inspiration from the Orthodox East, decided a dome would be in order. Unfortunately no one knew how to build one of the size that would be needed so instead he had a “lantern” designed and built of wood that would have an image of Christ Pantokrator (The Ruler of All) in the center of the lantern. This is what we see there today, although painted in a 19th century restoration.
Unfortunately, the glories of Ely are greatly diminished today owing to the Protestant Reformation in England under Henry VIII and later to Cromwell and his minions who finished off what Henry had started when he destroyed St. Etheldreda’s shrine. Luckily her relics were not entirely destroyed. In fact, her incorrupt hand is kept in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Etheldreda here in Ely, down the street from our hotel. I do hope to be able to go and venerate her, asking for her intercessions. However, all of the stained glass was destroyed, all the images of the saints were savagely pulled from their plinths and hacked to pieces. Nothing of that devotional art remains in the Lady Chapel except for a few bits of stained glass collected from all over the cathedral grounds. Over 120 statues of the saints decorated the Lady Chapel, all are now gone. The carved stone panels depicting the life of the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, that line the walls have been defaced and all the figures deprived of their heads or otherwise mutilated.
Speaking of the Lady Chapel, it is spectacular! It is the largest in England and, in spite of the scary modern statue of the Blessed Mother above the altar, it is quite lovely. It is filled with light as the majority of the walls are clear glass windows (oh how wonderful if the stained glass was still in place!) and the acoustics give 9 seconds of the most glorious reverberation. We will be singing here on Friday, and will be singing a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis setting by Sir John Taverner which is quite appropriate.
So now that I’ve bored you with history, let’s get on to the really neat stuff. After our tour with David we had a tour of the octagon lantern tower. That’s right, we climbed to the very top and it was worth every spiral stair.
The lantern dates, as I said, from about 1328 and all the original timbers are still there. We stood suspended hundreds of feet off the cathedral floor by sixty four foot long oak beams that were put up there in 1328. It was an unforgeteable experience, not least because of the shock you got when you stuck your head out of one of that painted panels of the lantern tower and looked down.
Then we went up even further…
After all that excitement I headed back for lunch at The Lamb Hotel where we are staying. I had broccoli soup followed by bangers and mash (“Suffolk pork sausages, cheddar mashed potatoes, red onion gravy, root vegetable crisps). It was delightful and surprisingly light, considering what it consisted of.
After that a little rest was in order so I returned to my room to wait till choir rehearsal. Well, unfortunately I missed a memo somewhere because I arrived late to rehearsal and, to add insult to injury, could not remember the code to the choir room door! It wasn’t long before someone let me in, though (God bless their hands).
We sang our first Evensong. It was an interesting experience due to nerves (it’s not every day that you sing in a 1000 year old cathedral) but we managed and pulled it off. We even had compliments from the two clergymen who presided over the service, which was wonderful. It was mostly candlelit, as is the English cathedral tradition and was simply stunning. There was a small turnout (not too surprising since it’s a Monday) but, sadly, it is not uncommon to have very small turnouts for the Evensongs which is a shame as the choirs are amazing and keeping a centuries old tradition alive.
Regardless of attendance, it was wonderful. Our tour organist, Ross Wood, was superb (as usual) and his accompaniment was expressive and grand, and his prelude and postlude (French Baroque) were especially impressive. One thing that really struck me was how very familiar the service seemed to me, even though I’d never been to one quite like it. The first thing that was familiar to me was that before we started processing into the choir the verger said, “Let us proceed in peace” while we all responded “In the name of Christ.” We started Evensong with the very familiar line, “O God make speed to save us.” with the choir singing the preces and responses by Tompkins, which also happens to be my favorite setting.
After Evensong we recessed out of the choir stalls (mine was from the 14th century) while the organ roared over our heads and then lined up near the choir room for a blessing from the priest. I caught myself starting to genuflect out of force of habit.
So that was our day. I hope you’ll pardon me for being so long-winded but there was a lot to cover! I hope you’ll continue to keep us in your prayers as we continue to sing the praises of God here in Ely Cathedral. As always, see you tomorrow.