Nostalgia and Grace, by Carolyn Lee (page 10)

Music at Oxford

We lived in Oxford for several years, and in the musical life of the college chapels there I was able to observe a sacred musical tradition that had continued more or less unbroken since the Middle Ages. It was Anglican now, rather than Catholic, but the substance was the same. I used sometimes to attend the daily service of Evensong in one of the colleges, enjoying a certain luminous beauty in the psalms and canticles. But overall I was disappointed in the church music at Oxford. I had the feeling of looking at a fossil—the form remained but the life had gone.

As I further studied medieval polyphony, it was no surprise to find that many compositions were based in hidden structural principles that conformed to the geometry underlying Gothic architecture. And this system of sacred number was, in turn supposed to reflect the vibrations of the planets and the inherent structure of the cosmos, created by God, the Divine Architect. The highest “music” therefore, was thought to be the “music of the spheres”.

Nonetheless it was in Oxford that I had one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. It was a recital of many voiced motets, compositions in praise of the Virgin Mary, such as had been sung in the late Middle Ages. Each motet would begin with a single voice and build gradually upward on the wings of boys’ voices at the top of their range, now washed in the folds of shimmering waves of sound. It was votive song at its most powerful, and I was enraptured. I put myself in the position of those who had first heard and sung these pieces, visualizing the resplendent “goddess” herself, “the Woman clothed with the sun” as Mary was often known to her worshippers. The echoes of that occasion are with me still.