This is the first of a series of summer blog posts about spiritual places visited by members of St Margaret’s and St George’s Church Family.
In July 2017 I took Thomas and Jennifer for a few days in Venice. The plan for the trip was hatched earlier in the year whilst helping Jennifer revise for her music A level. As well as giving a 15 minute recital and sitting some technical papers, there was also a music analysis paper. 12 pieces of music had been studied during the year, and the candidates would be asked to write detailed essays about 5 of them. The only way to succeed was to learn all 12 by heart, in terms of harmonies, melodies, rhythm, metre, texture, structure, background and performance forces. It was the last two that I found of most interest: who wrote the music, when, why, for which performance venue, and for which instruments.
One of these pieces was Giovanni Gabrielli’s “In Ecclesiis”, written specifically for performance in the round at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Four soloists sing the words of the verses, and the choir sings alleluias through the choruses. Here is the choir of King’s College Cambridge singing “In Ecclesiis”, accompanied by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. The whole is accompanied by cornetts, viola, trombones and organ. How wonderful would it be to visit the place in which it was originally intended to be performed!
Venice is a maze of winding narrow alleys and canals surrounded by tall buildings. We made the 10 minute journey from our hotel on foot, in and out of bright sunshine and deep shade. Without warning, all of a sudden we popped out into St Mark’s Square, and there was the Basilica, glittering in the morning sunlight. It was breath taking.
We had taken the precaution of dressing modestly for the visit (shoulders and knees covered), and joined the queue. Before long we were inside, and letting our eyes grow accustomed to the dimness. A typical example of religious houses of its time, every inch of wall space was decorated. Everywhere we looked there were statues, portraits and mosaics, with liberal use of gold leaf. I’m sure the interior is kept dim in order to protect the artworks, but how it must sparkle when brightly lit for major festivals. Eventually we made our way up to the rooftop terrace to see the famous four horse statues and of course, the galleries from which musicians sing and play. The urge to sing a few “Allelias” was almost irresistible!
Although this basilica is artistically impressive, if you like that sort of thing, as a place of worship it left me unmoved. I know buildings were made and embellished like that to the greater glory of God, but I find such rich decoration inappropriate and a distraction. In fact, I struggled to raise an authentic prayer. I prefer the airy whiteness and space of our own two churches. In them I feel able to be still, draw breath and listen.