Sunday, 19 July 2009


Over the last few weeks I’ve often tried to make time to write some of the stories which have been in my mind. Unfortunately reality intervened every time. I’ve also been doing too much. Friends would say that there was a time in my life when I thought I was superman. Nowadays, they say, I think I am Mighty Mouse. It started with the 9 Day festival in Clapham. There are 4 services a day and it is now in its 36th year. I started playing for the evening service 5 or 6 years ago. When I finished 9 of them I felt very virtuous. The church was packed and the singing was amongst the best I have ever heard in any church of any denomination. My friend Joaquin, the organist of Santiago Cathedral plays to a full Cathedral at the pilgrims’ mass each day at noon and he loves a full church. We all do.

Such is my obsessive personality the following year I decided to play at 2 of the services per day then last year I stepped that up to three a day. 27 in all. This year I decided to attempt all four. The Church is a 30 minute walk from my house and so at 6.20 am on the first morning I set off to play at the 7am service. There were 120 people there. I went back for the lunchtime service at 12.30 pm and there were even more people there. By mid afternoon I felt like nodding off at a meeting I was attending and by the 6pm service I was feeling a little disorientated. But the people kept coming and they kept singing. The Church had in excess of 300 people attending the 8pm service but to be honest I was by then too tired to care. I took the sensible decision to go back to three services per day and slept for 10 hours!

Even the 27 services in 9 days took a lot out of me. But it was great fun. By the last evening there were 500 people in this old Victorian Church and at one point I thought the singing would lift off the roof. That is one of the significant differences with the pilgrims mass in Santiago. The people don’t sing. Well, the Spaniards who are in the majority never sing anyway. So whilst the cantor valiantly tries to rehearse and rouse people all she usually gets in response is a faint mumble from the congregation.

But that silence apart there are other downsides to Joaquin’s enviable position of playing to a full church everyday. The first of course is that he has to play every day. Twice. He accompanies the 9.30 Mass which is in a traditional style. The Canons of the Cathedral process in at the start, many of them looking as if they have seen better days. They sing the Office and then they go into a High Mass with sung prayers and responses. Traditional right enough. But no one attends.

Joaquin then goes back for the Pilgrims’ Mass. He usually turns up at 11.55. He turns on the organ and uses a telephone to phone the singing nun on the altar. She dictates the running order of the music and 4 minutes later she announces that Mass is starting. Joaquin pulls out a few stops and the ceremony is underway.

This routine is repeated 365 days of the year. There is another organist, Manuel, who spells Joaquin and they cover each other for holidays. But the routine can be deadly. I also suspect that whilst the music varies a little, the sermon is basically the same every day. Mind numbing.

One of the things that struck me during the 9 day playathon in Clapham was the way the time passed so quickly. The routine is all absorbing. There is little time to fit anything else in. One day merges into the other. I think I’m beginning to understand how life passes for people who follow a monastic way of life. Turning up for prayer 5 or 6 times a day would sure make the time flash past.

And of course Cathedrals are in many ways like the other total institutions described by Erving Goffman in his book Asylums such as prisons and mental hospitals. When people live and work for very large parts of their time in an institution which has its own rules and culture, the internal world becomes more important than the external. So the community life of the Cathedral is vitally important to everyone who lives and works there from the priest who is the administrator or boss of the Cathedral, the porters who take up the collection and fly the Botafumeiro, the people in the souvenir shop and the night shift of cleaners. All personalities in their own world.
I was in the Cathedral about 10pm one evening practising on the organ with Joaquin. It was a quite different cathedral. Huge cleaning machines were passing up and down the aisles. The cleaners were chatting to one another. Candle sticks were being polished and that particular evening there was intermittent sound of an electric drill as repairs were being made to a wall bracket. Towards the end of the session I asked Joaquin if he would play something. He showed me the score of a piece of music by a modern composer. One glance told me that this was technically demanding but would certainly not have a tune that would stay in my head afterwards.

Joaquin set to it. It was quiet and loud, it was slow and fast. At times his fingers danced along the keyboard. It was fascinating to watch but listening to it was quite a different matter. Suddenly there was shouting from down below. I looked over and there was one of the cleaners shouting up to the organ loft at the top of her voice and shaking her first. I could barely make out what she was saying as Joaquin kept playing. Then I understood one word. “Basura”. Rubbish. She was shouting “that music is rubbish”! Joaquin said to me as he played, “what is she shouting about?” I explained that I thought she was shouting that his music was rubbish. Crazy musician that he is, he took his hands from the keyboard, flew off the organ stool to the railing and shouted down “Maria, why don’t you just shut up? I have to listen to your cleaning machine from hell. So you can listen to me.” In high dudgeon he pulled out every single stop and started playing. It was so discordant he could have been playing with his elbows. Musical revenge.

But to recover from all the musical exertions I then spent a week in the Pilgrims’ Office receiving pilgrims and issuing Compostelas. That is another story.

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