A musical pilgrimage: In the company of angels
PUBLISHED: 12:37 29 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:37 29 November 2016
Lindsay Want maps a musical pilgrimage with Seraphim, Suffolk's unique collection of angelic female voices with a mission to share breathtakingly beautiful sounds in some of Suffolk's secret spaces
It was the perfect July day for a gentle journey. And by the time the Suffolk back roads and little green lanes had delivered us from Darsham Station, over the heady heights of Middleton Moor and into the welcoming arms of Theberton, somehow the world felt a very different sort of place.
At St Peter’s, a wander down the deep-set path to the comforting call of the church bells has a way of peeling back the centuries. The days of the great deer park surrounding the little round tower and thatched roof do not seem so very far away and the bells appear to agree. Inside, the hubbub of hellos eventually subsides as each wide-eyed ‘pilgrim’ takes a pew. The scene is set for the first mini-concert of the morning and everyone is looking forward to what is coming next.
Flight of fancy
Seraphim move in mysterious ways. Behind our backs in the new-born stillness, Palestrina’s 6th century sound patterns rise up from somewhere by the font, as soft and pale as the parting petals of an emerging crocus. Rounded, rolling, turning, yearning, the cascades of Latin twist and tussle above our heads, playfully passed from upper voice to upper voice until their differences are resolved who knows where in the lofty barrel roof of the nave. It’s a stunningly unseen, yet all-feeling introduction, one which fills every ear, every soul, every inch of the enclosed space and delivers a sense of place like no other.
The exquisite voices and their owners move on, weaving together the centuries through enchanting musical threads, now with the drumming of a tabor, now with a delicate extra line of flute. The gentle tones of a timeless processional lead them down the aisle. By the altar they come together to roll out a magical carpet of sound. It scoops us up as it unfurls down the nave and lifts us high.
‘Lift thine eyes’ implores the modicum of Mendelssohn. Before long there is quiet again, save the sound of angel footsteps. For those left with such an appetite for listening, the silence is golden only through its heaviness. But then it comes. From nowhere. A single note. So pure. So perfect. So sustained. Joined by others from all directions, it is incredible, intense, disorientating, overwhelming, heavenly – and so very Seraphim.
A mysterious, wise woman
“Oh, that medieval surround sound!” sighs a lady to her sister as we settle back on the bus, all topped up with tea and tasty nibbles of Theberton history courtesy of the churchwardens.
“How does that Vetta Wise do it? How did they make that beautiful sound just with their mouths? It’s beyond anything I can imagine.“ We joke about Vetta, the eminent conductor, looking like a traffic warden at times, energetically directing the scattered throng, yet never with a hair out of place. We laugh as she introduces herself as Linda, admits to being Vetta’s hairdresser and takes all the credit.
Ladies like no other
The Lady Chapel at Leiston Abbey seems an appropriate place to find a Seraph or two and by the time we’d wandered and wondered through the full height ruins of the choir and transepts, they’d winged it there before us and were warming up nicely in the white light flooding through the great sheet-glass window.
All at once ancient, modern, simple and stretching high up to an exposed reedy thatch, it’s a short, ship-like sort of space where we sit almost uncomfortably close now to the Seraphs themselves. Here, with a touch of sheer sensitivity, the single voice of a piano joins them to whisk up Elgar’s ‘Weary Wind of the West’ and drive them ‘As Torrents in Summer’.
And as for the musical pilgrims, we find ourselves fully on board ‘the Ships of Arcady’ and right in the thick of it when Seraphim finally ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’. Exhilarated, exhausted and in awe at the sheer versatility of the crew, there’s nothing for it but to find a safe port and delicious lunch in the Refectory, then enjoy a reassuring stroll on terra firma around the impressive monastic site.
Onwards and upwards
“What a haven of a day!” declares Linda as the July sun touches the trees on the heath at Aldringham by the lonely little church of St Andrew. “Do you know, my mobile’s off. There’s no appointments. No driving. No rushing allowed. Everything’s laid on for us. This is heaven!” And her sister and I had to agree. It wasn’t just the music or the venues that were enjoyable, but the gathered company and the journeys we were making together. We’d somehow become proper little pilgrims.
Inside the little lost church, long ago the property of Leiston Abbey by the then navigable waters of the River Hundred, all is bright colours, community spirit and smiling Seraphs. Taking our positions in the pews with Vetta and her angelic brood in the mini west gallery behind us, this time there’s more than one wise woman in the room. Eyes close as Thomas Morley’s courtly 16th century melody-lines drift over our heads and dance the canzonet in the aisle. ‘Tune thy Music to Thy Heart’ implores Thomas Campion, but Linda and I are already there.
The Seraphs swoop gently forward to stand beneath the east window’s colourful community tale of sharing loaves and fishes. “I will give my love an apple,” suggests the solo ensemble to the gentlest of folk tunes. In this much cared-for countryside church that’s had its own fill of rack and ruin over the years, the ever-sweet sounds of Byrd and Mendlessohn’s Lark Song fall very much on understanding ears.
Likewise the moving waves of negro spirituals, ‘Oh By an’ By’ and ‘Deep River’ – hardly what you’d expect from a set of angelic voices. Ah, but then the Wise woman at the helm has an unfathomable all-round empathy and a musical mastery like no other.
The unique sound of Seraphim
Formed in 2014 by the outstanding international choir director and opera chorus master, Vetta Wise, Seraphim are an invitation-only, solo ensemble whose concerts have recently thrilled audiences all around Suffolk and at amazing venues in Venice, Jersey, Norfolk and Worcestershire. Seraphim are already planning another Suffolk musical pilgrimage for May 2017, based around connections with St Edmund. Perfect for would-be time travellers, a real treat for music-lovers and an indulgent day out, tickets include mini-concerts, refreshments, lunch and coach travel with a selection of Suffolk pick-up points.
Want to hear the Seraphs now?
Look out for them at the BBC Children in Need event in Bury St Edmunds on December 3, or catch up with them at Orwell Park School Orangery on December 4. More information at www.seraphimvoices.uk / Seraphim Box Office: 07763 527 239