Re: Re: reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches

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ST Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Co. Cork

The latest incongruity:

From the Irish Times, 18 September 2010

Celestial chorus in a Cobh cathedral


It’s an unusual idea that mixes early music with modern technology, while a choir sings the words from a novel about a 16th century nun – but the result promises to be beautiful

THE DISEMBODIED voices echoing along the nave of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh have an ethereal quality, eerie, resonating like an echo from a film by Louis Buñuel. Close up, however, they reveal themselves as the team of musicologists Deborah Roberts and Melanie Marshall and technician Mick Daly, setting up for the first performance in Ireland of Sacred Hearts, Secret Music as part of East Cork Early Music Festival. Their subject is not so much the Renaissance music of Italian convents as a matter of plugs and amplifiers, lights, cables and consoles. Nothing nun-like about any of that, were it not that it is precisely because of the nuns singing through the pages of Sarah Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts that this technical survey is taking place.

Dunant herself participates as narrator of the script she composed in collaboration with Nicholas Renton. What could be called her backing group will be the corps of singers drawn from the Celestial Sirens, of which Melanie, who teaches at the school of music at University College Cork, is a member, and Musica Secreta, of which Roberts is a director with Dr Laurie Stras of Southampton University. All three are specialists in Italian music from 1500 to 1800; their relationship with Dunant began when the writer contacted them for advice on the musical content of her novel, in which a reluctant young novice achieves notoriety by the angelic sweetness and purity of her voice. Purity is not at all what the girl had intended for her life, and the book uses her efforts to escape from her convent in Ferrara as a way of examining power, spirituality and the experience of women in the 16th century.

“Sarah understood that it was music which gave the nuns of that time a kind of power,” says Roberts. “It gave them a voice, and an opportunity to interact with their city or their patrons. The point of the book is that this was a political struggle in which the nuns in a particular convent organised themselves to do battle with the repressive religious authorities.”

Sex is the other subtext, disguised as sensuality but proposing that singing, both for performers and audience, could be a kind of recompense for the loss of a sexual life. “It’s the sheer joy of singing, its physicality,” enthuses Roberts, expanding on the suggestion that the female vocal cords could indicate sexual experience – a dangerous condition in a 16th-century convent. That’s the reason for Celestial Sirens as a title – siren voices drawing the listeners on chains of gold to heaven.

A director of the Tallis Scholars, Roberts is the founder, with Clare Norburn, of Brighton Early Music Festival, where Sacred Hearts, Secret Music had a successful first outing. “Laurie and I were proofing Sarah’s book and we just felt we really had to make a recording to go with it. With both Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens we produced a CD, and after that Sarah and Nicholas wrote up a 30-minute performance of readings and music which we expanded into a full-length drama.”

Now rejoicing in the acoustic of the great vaulted roof, Roberts accepts that, in a cathedral notorious for the strength of opposition to its re-ordering proposals, she is unlikely to be able to move the altar table to make room for the chorus of nuns, led by Katherine Hawnt as the novice Serafina. Instead they will sing from the side aisles, appearing only after a candlelit procession in the nave. Ambience is everything: “We don’t want people to come into a concert – concerts weren’t invented until the 18th century – but into a convent. We want them to feel that they are there.”

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