11 April 2019, The Tablet

Divine musical notes

Divine musical notes

The Etcetera Civil Service Choir at St John’s Smith Square in London
Photo: David Pearson


The Holy Week Festival at St John’s Smith Square throws open the portal to the soul in a space that is both consecrated church and music venue

Christianity’s holiest week is almost upon us, and while its poignancy and tragedy, its twists and turns, its darkest afternoon and its lightest dawn have inspired artists through the centuries and across every medium imaginable, there is one art form to which we return, time and again, to reinforce the meaning and message of the Passion.

So what is it about music that gives it the power to hold this most intense week of the Church’s calendar? What is it about the sound of instruments and voices, orchestras and choirs, that encapsulates the enormity of the events of 2,000 years ago, making them relevant in so many hearts, so many centuries after they happened?

In search of answers, I turned to Sir James MacMillan, Britain’s foremost composer of religious music, and to Nigel Short, former member of the King’s Singers and founder of the a cappella chamber choir, Tenebrae. They are the leading figures behind a festival of music taking place through next week at St John’s Smith Square in London (14-20 April); and, explains Short, the event’s director, the location is the first significant issue. A committed high-church Anglican, who sang in the choirs of Westminster’s abbey and cathedral in his time, he recalls many Holy Weeks when he seemed to be taking in music here, there and everywhere across London.

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