LONDON — Can you imagine people touring a concert hall and then flocking out because Itzhak Perlman was about to play the violin? Or Horowitz the piano? Especially when they could have stayed, at no cost, and listened?
Yet a similar scenario happens every day at England's great cathedrals.
Late in the afternoon at St. Paul's in London or in Canterbury, Salisbury, Wells or York, a service is announced at the same time the cathedral closes to sightseers. Although visitors are invited to attend the service, few stay.
And what a pity that is. For if they did stay they would hear beautiful music, skillfully performed in the glorious setting for which it was written.
They would have heard choral evensong.
You needn't be Anglican or even Christian to enjoy it. An enthusiasm for music, history and/or architecture will suffice.
During the day you can explore the cathedral as a beautiful and intricate artifact. At evensong you take your seat and experience the cathedral as its builders intended.
The magic begins even before the music starts. Throughout the day, eager visitors fill the cathedral, but as they reluctantly file out, a hush descends on the old church.
An indefinable presence--shy of crowds, compounded of age and sanctity--creeps back to reclaim its home. It drifts to the airy heights and settles into the shadowy corners.
A cleric who, during sightseeing hours, directed tourists like traffic, now treats you as an honored guest. He ushers you to a seat and hands you a service sheet.
The organ sounds. The choir and clergy file in.
At ease in your seat, senses sharpened by the beauty of the music, you will notice details you might have missed before: the elaborate carving of the stalls, the brightly painted bosses, the play of light and shadow over an ancient monument. As the high, pure tones of the choir sweep against the old stone, it seems to glow with renewed life.
England's choral tradition stretches back at least eight centuries. (A choir at St. Paul's was written about in 1127, but it probably goes back even further.)
Musicians continually praise the clear tones, precise phrasing and perfect blend of choir voices. The choral has been called ". . . the most distinctive English art since 1500."
People go to Westminster Abbey to admire its architecture, its royal tombs, its "Poet's Corner." David Piper, in his classic guide to London, says:
"An essential part of getting to know the abbey is to attend a service . . . to hear, at evensong . . . the lift and surge of the choir, music flooding to the vault--this is to have the building's fabric as if lit, redefined by another sunshine."
If you attend evensong at the abbey, ask to sit in the choir--a screened area in the center of the church between the nave and altar. During medieval times, the monks sat there to chant the canonical hours. Later it became the exclusive reserve of clergy, choir and dignitaries.
Today, as you enter by the west door, a cathedral official directs you along the south aisle to a seat in the transept. But if you ask, the official will take down a restraining rope and lead you into the choir. The singers will soon join you there, and you will have a fine view of the service.
This is no longer a distinction reserved for the privileged--you have only to ask. The verger told me that if you arrive early, there is generally no problem in obtaining a seat in the choir. But if you want to be sure of a place, call ahead and they will reserve a seat for you.
One Friday I arrived at St. Paul's just in time for evensong. People surged around the entrance, but an official barred the way.
"No sightseeing!" he called. "Service only. Hold up your hand if you're attending the service."
I raised a hand and struggled through the crowd.
At St. Paul's, the congregation sits under the dome. The cathedral's baroque elegance contrasts with the Gothic splendor of the abbey. But when the choir begins to sing, the same transforming magic occurs.
The golden mosaics seem to burn from within, the dome to arch to a greater height. As you listen to the beautiful tones of the organ at St. Paul's, you might enjoy remembering that Handel and Mendelssohn often played it.
Evensong lasts about 30 minutes. The spoken portion includes prayers and biblical readings. Music is plentiful and begins with an organ prelude. The choir chants a psalm, sings two canticles (biblical songs of praise), an anthem and hymns.
On Sundays and important feast days the service includes a sermon. On these occasions, evensong may last up to an hour.
Traditionally, cathedral choirs are composed of men and boys, but a few choirs include girls now.
The choirs at St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey are exclusively male. This reflects the fact that for centuries women were not permitted to sing in church, and most sacred music was composed for male voices.
The choir's "boy power" is supplied by choristers from the cathedral choir school. The boys generally board and attend classes in the cathedral precincts.