church singing

I was a tenor substitute at Grace Cathedral for their Sunday service yesterday. I was definitely not in top form, due to a sore throat that is threatening to stay the week. Having been to precious few church services (and the majority of those being Unitarian), it was baptism by fire (pun intended) on Episcopalian church ritual. Just for future reference, I am jotting down a few impressions.

The celebrant was decidedly not celebratory. When chanting portions of the Bible he sounded distinctly unenthused. I concluded this must be because he had to hold his arms out at 90 degrees, forearms vertical, and that this must have become rather painful after a while. The gesture baffled me — what could it mean?

  • “Look, I’ve got nothing up my sleeves.”
  • “What am I saying? Beats the heck out of me.”
  • “Don’t shoot me, O Lord of Hosts.”
  • “Vogue! Let your body move to the music!”
  • Having washed his hands, the ecclesiastical surgeon waits for the attending nurses to put on his rubber gloves and hand him the body of Christ so he can break it.

I realize that this little commentary may be offensive to some — I don’t mean any offense. I was brought up Hindu, and we have more than enough bizarre rituals (I recall a rather painful one involving being stooped over and holding out a begging bowl). But as a uninformed attendee viewing the entire ritual from the back, I couldn’t help but have these thoughts flitting through my head.

Another interesting aspect of the experience were the vestments. A tight fitting purple robe with a huge billowing white cassock over it. The sleeves resembled those from a kimono — one could hide a sword in them I felt, although the church is a place of peace. I had to borrow a robe from an absent chorister — the service was only the Men of Grace Cathedral, which meant 11 singers in total.

As far as the music went, my favorite piece was the little Duruflé motet Notre Pére. It was hushed, gentle, and also in French, my worst language. The other French piece was by Lili Boulanger (the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger’s sister). In the choral lounge, one of the other singers joked that we should sing all of the French pieces like Edith Piaf, with ridiculous rolled r’s. The director of music, when playing the organ during the service a half hour later, did an impromptu improvisation on “Ma Vie En Rose” which nearly induced audible giggling.

All in all I learned quite a bit, although I was rather unprepared. Walking while singing some Anglican psalm/chant that you’ve never seen before is a little tricky. I think I managed to get the hang of singing the words in the right places, but then the word stress sort of went to pieces. Perhaps next time, if there is a next time.