And now for something completely different

I think I’ve discovered how Christianity managed to get such a powerful foothold in European culture. The early church bewitched congregations with its music.

Last night I was privileged to attend a sublime concert of Gregorian chants and early choral music performed by the St Laurence Singers (I told you Apocalyptica wasn’t my usual choice in music).

There is a fascinating story behind the performance. It was the 4th, by popular demand, in a short series of concerts in which the songs from a medieval manuscript called the Rimini Antiphonal were performed for the first time in 600 years. The manuscript was beqeathed to the NSW State Library in 1928 by an English collector, in recognition of and gratitude for, Australia’s contribution to the war effort in WW1.

It was only last year that the manuscript was finally transcribed and prepared for performance by Neil McEwen, a distinguished scholar of Gregorian chants and the director of the St Laurence Singers, as well as choirs at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

We were first treated to a slideshow of illuminations from the pages of the manuscript and a short presentation about the music by McEwen. Apparently the original score had been scratched out in the 16th C (due to changing musical conventions), so he has actually had to reconstruct how the original 1328 chants probably sounded! Even before we got to hear the music, I was greatly moved by his obvious passion for it. He exuded happiness and well-deserved pride at the prospect of presenting this glorious sound to our ears.

And when the singing started, I wanted to fall at his feet in gratitude. I wanted to garland the singers with roses and shower them with incense and myrrh. Words can barely express my appreciation for this transcendant gift they have given all who were privileged to hear them.

What is it about music that moves us so profoundly? I wanted to dance, I did weep, I felt I was lifted beyond the mundane preoccupations of my life. The exquisite purity of the soaring sopranos, the perfect harmonies (or should that be polyphonies?), to me represented all that is best and beautiful about human beings. No wonder my ancestors went to church a lot!

To all who were connected with this event – what an achievement. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

If you’d like to know more, and hear the singing, there’s a program about it on ABC Classic FM tomorrow at 2.00pm.

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