I spent last weekend in the beautiful city of Norwich with its magnificent cathedral that dominates the view, as I suppose it was designed to do, with the second largest spire in England only beaten in the who’s got the biggest spire competition by Salisbury Cathedral. I never tired of looking at it on my meandering journey around this charming part of England.
The Norman/Romanesque building with its glorious later Perpendicular Gothic additions, dates back to 1096 and was mostly completed by 1145 with the Gothic additions completed between 1297 and 1430 with some major interruptions from the Black Death.
It stood there solidly through other disasters too apart from plague – it kept its cool through the years of religious musical chairs when King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth I all kept telling people what to believe, first one thing and then another, killing those who disagreed with them.
Henry VIII ended its original life as a Benedictine monastery and a hundred years later, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans tried to rough it up a bit but the serenity of this great building reigned over all these misfortunes.
That feeling of calm over adversity still permeated the place when I visited it last weekend. The country, elsewhere might have been whooping and cheering at the Olympic Games, bloodshed and misery may be seeping through Syria and another mass murderer may have been on the rampage in the States but this building spoke of other things.
It was good enough for awhile to sit here at the back of the nave and to wonder at the architecture where the Romanesque rounded columns branch out into the luxuriant fan vaulting of the Perpendicular Gothic ceiling.
I am glad, all these centuries later that the original wooden ceiling collapsed in 1278 so that this glorious replacement could inspire us with its grace and confident elan.
Beautiful too are those rounded arches with their subtly understated decoration. They might well have been painted in the early years but they are now only coloured by the constantly moving light reflected through the Victorian stained glass windows.
In this most silent and immovable of buildings, the atmosphere was all about movement and light – a miracle of architectural design.
I was happy just to sit there in silence and to let the building work on me. It spoke of other times when I used to sing in choirs and delight in the other-worldliness of the English Gothic – escaping from the World maybe.
That silence was broken, delightfully, when it was time for the daily service of choral evensong.
Here in the heart of England, in a building inseparably tied to English history, the elegant and stylishly accurate singing came not from the Norwich Cathedral choir, they were on holiday, but from the choir of Trinity Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, USA – from a city with its own very different towers and spires.
The music for the service was a happy mix of English Tudor and American modern and I was glad to be reminded that this temple to beauty and contemplation is also very much a part of the modern world. Everywhere is part of the World whether we like it or not.
That was good to think about outside the cathedral too when I walked through the old Benedictine cloisters that survived the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries and the chaos of the English Reformation keeping its doors open to all in hospitality according to the rule of Saint Benedict.
I thought of another Tudor composer, the short-lived but inspired John Sheppard (1515-1559) who lived and survived through the troublesome reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor writing music that sublimates the blood-letting and prejudice of those days. Here is his Nunc Dimittis from the service of Evensong as translated for the, then new, Book of Common Prayer of 1559, the year of the composer’s death. It is sung by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.