Music Filling a Sacred Space

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The experience of singing in a cathedral is unlike any other, because the acoustic properties of a cathedral’s interior are unique. These unusual properties are created by the size, shape and materials used in cathedral design.

By definition, a cathedral is the seat of a bishop, and therefore the chief church in a diocese. Although there are no specific ecclesiastical rules for designing and building a cathedral, few dioceses want a small, humble seat of power, and by tradition cathedral architecture still patterns itself on styles created in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This generally means a sanctuary with a high ceiling, often more than a single story in height, often topped with a dome, and the use of marble or concrete as the primary material.

The larger a space is, the longer the reverberation time of sounds made within it will be – that is, the longer a sound will continue after its source stops making it. Spoken words tend to run together and become more lyrical in such an echoing place, making speech more like singing, and singing richer and more dramatic. The shape of the domed or arched ceiling affects the reverberation time even more; subtle differences in the curvature of a dome can give different qualities to the music made under it. Thus each cathedral has a specific sound. Giovanni Gabrieli was known to compose specifically for the acoustics of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice when he was the  principal organist there in the late 16th century; his “Gloria In Excelsis” will give the acoustics of St. Mark’s Seattle a chance to display its own character in this concert.

The marble (or, in more modern times, concrete) that is commonly used for the interiors of cathedrals also has an effect on sound. Unlike plaster or cloth upholstery found in a concert hall, marble and concrete absorb very little sound. This means more sound is free to continue reverberating.  In any space, the audience members are the most absorptive (sound dampening) element, but in a cathedral the difference is greater than in a theater. A concert-goer will absorb 400 times more sound than the marble pillar in front of which she is seated.

For a singer, the challenges of performing in cathedral are many, but the rewards are great – hearing one’s own voice magnified and enriched can be heady. For the audience – don’t just try to imagine it. Come and hear what music can become in a sacred space.