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Singing Praise for King's Chapel in Cambridge

December 16, 1990|JUDITH MORGAN

The silver-haired sexton went about his routine that morning at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, moving quietly through the empty choir stall, replacing slim white candles in front of each velvet seat.

Then he approached the altar and its mighty painting, "Adoration of the Magi," by Peter Paul Rubens. It was flanked by fat candles. The churchman carefully scraped away their wax drippings.

"Do you replace the candles every day?" I asked as he worked his way down the aisle.

"Hmmm . . . sometimes every other day," he replied. "It depends, you see, on how fast they burn. In warm weather they burn faster. We light them just before Evensong. You should come back at 5:30 and hear the choir."

Ah, the choir. The King's College Chapel Choir. Their traditional Christmas Eve carol service, broadcast in all its majesty on BBC radio and television, has brightened my holidays throughout the world.

From these ancient wooden stalls, in this sublime space, ring out the voices--the clear, true voices--of 16 boys and 14 men, a choir that was ordained by King Henry VI, who founded the college in 1441 and approved the design of its chapel.

Although the first stone was laid in the summer of 1446, the chapel took a century to complete. Part of the delay was for lack of funds; part for unscheduled events, such as the War of the Roses. The chapel was finished in spectacular fashion during the reigns of Henry's Tudor successors--at about the time that Michelangelo was wrapping up his assignment at the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

The scale of King's College Chapel is grand, the mood ethereal. So much of the wall area is filled with stained glass that the whole chapel shimmers with light.

The Great Vault measures 289 feet long, almost as long as a football field. Its fan-vaulted ceiling soars 80 feet high, supported only by a tracery of side columns.

When I arrived that morning, the chapel was empty, but for the sexton. Our steps echoed on the black-and-white marble floor. Our whispers seemed to be shouts.

I leaned on a pew and tilted my head to stare at the wondrous ceiling. It is held by spindles of limestone that splay into ribs and then spread out over the chapel like parchment parasols. With a span of 40 feet, it is the largest fan vault in the world.

The delicate stonework could be taken for ivory. Some panels are so thin, the sexton insisted, that a footstep would break through.

While musing about this miracle of medieval construction, I felt a vibration in the marble floor. My ears seemed to clog. Then deep bass chords crashed against treble scales and swirled through the chamber. The pipe organ was alive. "He's just practicing," the sexton said of the organist, as the music stopped and started.

To me it was a concert, a rich and fortuitous moment, a case of sound meeting light.

The organ is hidden by a massive 16th-Century wooden screen, elaborately carved with the initials and emblems--crowns, roses, fleur-de-lis--of King Henry VIII and his then-wife Anne Boleyn.

Beyond the screen is a gift stall where I bought leather bookmarks and learned, from a cheery volunteer, that the chapel is open seven days a week all year, although the choir sings only during school terms. I promised to return that night.

Near the northside door was a heavy wooden chest with two rough slots in the top. A notice said that one million visitors a year come to King's College Chapel, no doubt the chief draw at Cambridge, and contributions are needed for ongoing restoration.

This was no ordinary collection box. It was the very chest, handsomely stained by time, in which King Henry VII sent gold and silver to complete the chapel in the 1500s.

My paper money seemed tawdry as I stuffed it into the cask, but it was all I had.

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