The magical experience of singing in ancient churches

Singing holidays In France

On a week-long singing holiday in south-west France Anne Kearns experienced the joy of singing in ancient churches. She explains why performing in such historically inspiring surroundings makes you sound and sing better.

The department of the Lot in south-west France is home to over 600 Romanesque churches.  For a chance to sing in several of these, last September I joined other amateur singers from Holland, England, Canada and India for a singing holiday based in and around the market town of Cazals. From Monday through Saturday we spent our mornings rehearsing in 12th Century churches, forming a pop-up choir for a public performance on Saturday evening.

To sing in these churches is to be transported back in time. Think Eleanor of Aquitaine, Héloise and Abelard, Thomas à Beckett, Hildegarde von Bingen or Carmina Burana. When these churches were built liturgical music was very different from what we are used to. The congregation didn’t sing. Women certainly didn’t sing. The concept of polyphony didn’t exist.

It is hard for us, living in an age where music is available to us pretty much whenever we want to listen to it, and often, like when being put on hold, when we don’t, to imagine what it must have been like for people in the Middle Ages to hear music for the first time in a space defined by stone walls. The echoes that resounded in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were believed, in the 5th Century, to be the sound of angels’ wings. Technically we know this as a “slap echo” – when sound bounces off stone walls, to every “TA”, there is a softer, resonating “ta-ta”.  

The Romanesque churches in the Lot are hardly as grand as Hagia Sophia but their acoustics are heavenly. In the 1980s, when I first visited the Lot, it was described to me as someplace people only found by accident or word of mouth. Even though the Lot was home to Rocamadour, the second most visited site in France, the rest of it was, even in August, relatively tourist-free. One day to escape the sun’s oppressive rays, a friend and I wandered into the majestic, two-domed cathedral in Cahors. It was lunch-time and no one was around. We stood on the altar in the cool provided by the ancient stone and for some reason I started singing, and I kept on singing because the space was so encouraging. To hear your voice coming back at you, bolder and richer than it left you is an almost out of body experience. It is the musical equivalent of looking at yourself in one of those mirrors they often put in dressing rooms that make you look taller and thinner than you really are.

This is what’s known as the “chorus effect”, the fuller sound that is created by reverberation. In this case the reverberation is the sound of a voice bouncing back and forth between sandstone walls. Not only does this make you sound better but it also makes you sing better.  Here’s how it works: if you sing a note and hold it in a space with no resonance, what’s known as a “dry” space, if you go slightly off pitch you will hear it immediately. In a “wet space” the walls hold the original pitch and you can, in theory, tune to your own voice and sing in key.

Debussy is supposed to have said that music was the silence between the notes. The walls of the Romanesque churches make it clear that there is a space between silence and sound. To sing as part of a choir in these “wet” spaces is thrilling. The slap echoes mean that the other voices are always in the air, tuning in to each other in a way that’s just not possible in other, “drier” spaces.

One of the churches, Notre Dame de Compassion in Degagnazès is attached to a building that once housed the monks of the Order of Grandmont, all that remains of a 13th Century monastery. For centuries the faithful, possibly on their way to Santiago de Compostela, stopped here to visit the shrine of the Virgin Mary and to seek a cure from the waters that run, visibly, underneath the church to the left of the entrance. It is, quite literally, a wet space.

On drier ground, the church in Les Arques was once part of an 11th Century Benedictine priory. The nave was restored by Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine, who settled in Les Arques in the 1930s and two of his works are featured within. Its acoustics are stunning; during the break we all remarked how easy it was to tune into and feel held by the other voices. It also helped to have an inspiring leader whose passion is for enabling singers of all levels to free their voices.

Singing Holidays France are run by the charismatic Anke De Bruijn. Following a successful career as a writer and translator, De Bruijn trained as a choral director in the Netherlands before moving to the Lot where she directs the Chorale de Cazals and the vocal ensemble, Gaia. We had ample time to learn the music which included pieces that ranged from the sacred to the profane from the Renaissance, the Baroque and Romantic periods and present-day Africa. De Bruijn sends the sheet music and MP3 files of each part to the singers well in advance. Still, there was something magical about how by the first morning’s coffee break we were a team with our eye on the prize. And we learnt a lot. She is a gifted vocal coach. Although it is possible to explore the region in the afternoons we all gravitated to the optional vocal workshops.

Prices start at 290€ without accommodation and meals; all-inclusive packages, with lodging, breakfast and dinner, start from 790€ for double occupancy.


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