The choir of St Polycarp’s Parish Church, Finaghy, Belfast, celebrated its 10th annual summer tour with a notable first by singing Evensong in the historic grandeur of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Monday July 31 and Tuesday August 1.
Due to the pandemic, this was the choir’s first tour since 2019, when members sang in Truro Cathedral. In previous years, they have visited Westminster Abbey three times (2013, 2014 and 2017), as well as the chapels of three Cambridge Colleges, Portsmouth and Chester Cathedral and Dublin’s St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedral.
Members of Renaissance, Northern Ireland’s oldest chamber choir formed in 1976 and which won the inaugural BBC Sainsbury’s ‘Choir of the Year’ competition in 1984, sang alongside St Polycarp’s.
Renaissance’s Artistic Director, Simon Neill-O’Brien BEM, is also St Polycarp’s Director of Music.
St Paul’s Cathedral, which stands on Ludgate Hill, at the highest point of the City of London, dates from the late 17th century and was designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren (one of almost 100 buildings and churches which he designed or oversaw in his lifetime). Its construction was part of a major rebuilding programme in the city after the Great Fire of 1666, in the course of which the earlier Gothic cathedral (Old St Paul’s) was gutted.
Wren began his work in 1675 and St Paul’s was consecrated for use in December 1697, although, with additional construction work ongoing, Parliament did not declare it officially complete until Christmas Day 1711.
The cathedral, which is the seat of the Bishop of London and serves as the mother church of the Diocese of London, has one of the highest domes in the world and is the second-largest church building in area in the UK, after Liverpool Cathedral.
Choir members were warmly welcomed each evening by the officiating clergy.
Conducted by Simon Neill-O’Brien BEM, the joint choirs sang the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis to settings by Harwood in A flat on the Monday evening and by Noble in B minor on the Tuesday.
They also sang two anthems: On the Monday, How lovely are thy dwellings from Brahms’s ‘German Requiem’ and on the Tuesday, Haydn’s Insanae et vanae curae (‘Frantic and futile anxieties invade our minds’) from his first oratorio, ‘The Return of Tobias’.
The organist was Martin Ford, Acting Sub-Organist of St Paul’s.
Choir members were supported, as on previous tours, by some spouses, family members and friends and a large congregation was present at each service.
Between rehearsals and preparations for the services, there was still time for the obligatory sightseeing, shopping and theatre going, with the opportunity for members of both choirs to socialise informally over a meal on the Monday evening.
In addition, before rehearsals on the Tuesday, members enjoyed a short tour of some of St Paul’s main features and fabric, including the ‘Harry Potter spiral staircase’ (more formally known as the Dean’s staircase or the Geometric Staircase) which featured in the filming of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
An unforgettable journey
Reflecting on the tour, Mr Neill-O’Brien said: “Our tour reached its pinnacle as we stepped into the grandeur of St Paul’s Cathedral, an awe-inspiring testament to centuries of architectural and musical heritage.
“Surrounded by exceptional musicians and enveloped by the cathedral’s majestic acoustics, our choirs embarked on an unforgettable journey. The singers delivered breathtaking music. Singing in such a venerable space was a privilege and a memorable means by which to mark our tenth tour.
“The historical significance of this cathedral, combined with the collective singing of our choirs, created an atmosphere of transcendence. There was an indescribable connection to the countless musicians who have graced this sacred ground before me and continue to do so.
“I am indebted to all our singers for their dedication, willingness and talent to make such an occasion possible, to our talented organist for such a sensitive yet powerful accompaniment, and to the clergy and vergers for their kindness, warmth and best wishes.”
Contributed by the Rev Clifford Skillen