Posted by: christinelaennec | July 8, 2016

A musical adventure at the Cathedral of the Isles with the Scottish Plainsong Choir

As I was telling you in my last post, I had an amazing weekend on the Isle of Cumbrae singing with the Scottish Plainsong Choir.  Many of the choir members were staying at the College of the Holy Spirit, which as you can see below, adjoins the Cathedral.  The Cathedral was built in 1851, and is the smallest cathedral in Britain.  It’s an Episcopalian cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Isles on the left, and the College of the Holy Spirit on the right. July 2016.

The Cathedral of the Isles on the left, and the College of the Holy Spirit on the right. July 2016. (Sorry to cut off the top of the steeple – I couldn’t get further back!)

We spent Saturday rehearsing in the Cathedral:

The Cathedral of the Isles, Millport, Isle of Cumbrae. July 2016.

The Cathedral of the Isles, Millport, Isle of Cumbrae. July 2016.

We were well-catered for with tea breaks and lunch, through in the College.  The weather was rainy and cool, but a friend and I managed a quick walk before lunch, in between showers.  At the entrance to the Cathedral we found these ancient carvings:

Stone carvings from the island

Stone carvings from the island

Below you see the cloisters, a beautiful feature of the College.  I managed to find a brief moment when it was empty except for me:

The Cloisters, College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

The Cloisters, College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

We had coffee and tea in the Cloisters, as well as a short back-stage rehearsal on Sunday before Vespers:

Alan Tavener leads the Scottish Plainsong Choir in one last rehearsal before the afternoon service.  College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae, July 2016.

Alan Tavener leads the Scottish Plainsong Choir in one last rehearsal before the afternoon service. College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae, July 2016.

It was lovely to sing there!

During the weekend, we also had the use of the sitting room, and the library beyond it:

The sitting room, College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

The sitting room, College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

Note the wine glasses – many people brought wine to share with dinner.  Upstairs are the rooms, each named after a saint.  This one was presumably the cell of the infirmarian (my Latin is very rusty!):

One of the doors of the rooms in the College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

One of the doors of the rooms in the College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

This stained glass panel intrigued me.  A card in the sitting room said it refers to the medieval legend of a monk who was a tumbler (as in acrobat).  He devoted himself and his tumbling to Our Lady the Virgin Mary.  You can read a version of the legend here.  It either has a sad ending or a happy ending, depending on how you look at it!

The Blessed Juggler?

Stained glass of “Our Lady’s Tumbler,” College of the Holy Spirit, Isle of Cumbrae.

I found the Cathedral and College to be excellent examples of the medieval revival in the 19th century.  The Victorians were drawn to elements of medieval culture and were fond of recreating them in art and architecture.  Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, was very inspired by the legends of the Knights of the Round Table, and the ideals of chivalry.

The acoustics in the Cathedral, along with our choirmaster’s excellent warm-ups and constant reminders to keep our throats OPEN, meant that even after an entire day of singing, my voice didn’t feel a bit tired.  I set out for another evening walk, and was joined by a friend – whose ears I probably talked off!

Here is the view from the side of the College down to the front gate:

Setting out on another evening walk: looking down towards the front gate of the Cathedral. July 2016.

Setting out on another evening walk: looking down towards the front gate of the Cathedral. July 2016.  You can just about see the little meerkat dolls inside the window.

Once again I was very lucky with the weather!  We walked away from the shoreline and up the hill.  The Isle of Cumbrae is not very big.  There is a road around the circumference (11 miles) and a road that goes up to the hill in the middle, and down the other side.

We were soon looking down on the houses of Millport stretching around the curve of the bay, and the Cathedral on its wooded knoll.  We saw a few of the island’s many rabbits, and some lovely cattle, including some calves who came up to bat their eyelashes at us (alas, no photo of them).

Walking up towards the viewpoint, Isle of Cumbrae: the Cathedral nestling below. July 2016.

Walking up towards the viewpoint, Isle of Cumbrae: the Cathedral nestling below. July 2016.

The Cathedral spire, from further up:

The Cathedral, with the sea beyond, from further up the hill. Isle of Cumbrae.

The Cathedral, with the sea beyond. Isle of Cumbrae.

We climbed up as far as a spot with a number of benches, and a fantastic view.  On the horizon, barely visible, we could see Ailsa Craig.  That’s a haystack rock that lies off the coast near Stranraer, 36 miles south of Cumbrae.

Closer by is the island of Little Cumbrae.  It was bought by an Indian guru some years ago who seems to be the topic of some controversy, including investigations for tax evasion.  All that is just a speck in the long history of the island, which has seen castles built and demolished, a very early lighthouse lit by a fire, and a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll.

Little Cumbrae, lying to the south of the Isle of Cumbrae (known also as Great Cumbrae). July 2016.

Little Cumbrae, lying to the south of the Isle of Cumbrae (known also as Great Cumbrae). July 2016.  I think this was about 9 pm.

I was sorry to turn and come back down the hill, it had been such a beautiful walk.

When I got back to the B&B, one of the owners had very kindly ironed my choir clothes for me, which had allowed me to be out as late as I wanted.  I thanked her sincerely, and we had an interesting talk about growing up on the island, and the difference between the island in summer and in winter.

After another good night’s sleep and tasty breakfast, it was back to the Cathedral.  Many of us sang at the 11:00 Eucharist, and all of us sang Vespers at 3:00, which was part of the Cathedral’s summer concert programme.  Here is a glimpse of our music:

Some of the Gregorian Chant that we sang at Vespers.

Some of the Gregorian Chant that we sang at Vespers.

Some of the choir members can read the medieval music, written in “neumes”.  I, however, relied on the round-note transcription above – and on my many markings to keep me straight!  Do you see the asterix after “ibant”?  This marks where the cantor finishes singing and the choir joins in.  Thus it is a particularly important symbol.  I was amused by this poster in the vestry:

Poster in the vestry

Poster in the vestry showing the Cathedral of the Isles and College of the Holy Spirit, and with a reminder for singers of Gregorian Chant.

We had a quick run-through in the Cloister:

Another photo of us rehearsing in the Cloister.  Thanks to all those in the photo for granting their permission.  (I am third from left - I seem to have gone completely grey that weekend!)

Another photo of Alan Tavener rehearsing us in the Cloister. Many thanks to those in the photo for granting permission for me to use this photo.)

And then we filed through the library and past the asterix advice, into the choir stalls.  The church seemed quite full, which was very nice as there was another concert happening on the island at the same time.

Words cannot express how amazing it was to find myself singing this very pure form of music (everyone singing the same note together), in such a beautiful place.  The acoustics were such that the faintest whisper could be heard by all, so I was really concentrating!  (See the next post for some recommendations of plainsong music.)

The Cathedral of the Isles, Millport, Isle of Cumbrae.

The Cathedral of the Isles, Millport, Isle of Cumbrae.

All too soon we had finished, to kind applause from the audience.  I was sad that it was over.  However, I hope to have another chance to sing with them in the future.

When I got back home, the Dafter and Michael were out, and Tilly came to snuggle up with me.  I will confess that she and I had a wee cat-nap.  I had many happy memories and the music still running through my head.

 

 

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Responses

  1. It does indeed sound magical, what a beautiful place to spend time and be able to sing in the choir. An amazing place to be.

  2. What a lovely post on what sounds like a wonderful experience Christine! Now I want to listen to some of this sort of music. Any recommendations?

  3. I feel transported. What a beautiful post. I’m very impressed that you sing Gregorian chant, it’s so soothing and I can imagine how delightful it must have sounded in that building.

  4. Thanks for every photo and your narrative. I enjoyed this post very much, and am now headed off to follow the story link and then Google plainsong which I have heard before but want to hear again. I join Cathy’s query about any recommendations you may have. So glad you had a lovely time, Christine! xx

  5. Thank you all very much! Cathy and Gracie, I will ask the choirmaster what he would recommend, and I’ll do a separate post with some recommendations. Lorna, don’t be too impressed – I wouldn’t go so far as to claim I can “sing Gregorian chant,” as I haven’t done all that much of it, and I certainly relied heavily on expert guidance. However, it’s something I would like to understand better, and sing again when I get the chance.

  6. What an absolutely beautiful experience. Thanks so much for taking us along.

  7. How utterly amazing. I can see why you would be so pleased and blessed by the opportunity to sing there. I did not know you could sing–or have forgotten. How sweet the blog post…

  8. Merci de nous faire partager ainsi ce voyage et ce concert ! Ici aussi il y a un choeur de chants grégoriens. une de mes amies (également professeur de yoga !) y chante et mon mari et moi allons écouter tous leurs concerts. Le dernier se tenait dans l’abbaye de Boscodon, en pleine montagne. C’est une toute petite abbaye, très simple et très belle, à quelques km de la maison. J’aime surtout y aller l’hiver quand elle est entourée de neige (et de glace).
    Bonne semaine !

  9. What a magical place the cathedral is. How wonderful to be singing there, and for the people listening to the choral music in that setting.

  10. You have shared such a magical place us! I can see why you had a wonderful in such a lovely setting. I, too like Gracie, googled plainsong and discovered some wonderful music. I hope your week is going well. My best to you your dear family, Pat xx

  11. Delightful post, and great pics, as usual, Christine.

  12. Thank you all very much! One of the joys of blogging is anticipating the fun of sharing things with one’s readers.

  13. This is a wonderful article! thank you! Could I possibly use some of it, and some photos for the upcoming EMFS newsletter? I would naturally point readers to this site (you can contact me on sue@emfscotland.org.uk).


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