Musica Sacra – Music, Mirrors and Bells

 

Musica Sacra. There is more than one festival of that name. But there is only one festival that immerses the visitor in a total experience… no sense is left untouched. The festival still reverberates with the 2008 appearance of Arvo Pärt.

On the 15th August, the Assumption of Mary, I was joined by my father James Lisney for a very special concert to mark the beginning of the Musica Sacra festival in Belgium. The festival’s home is Rosario, an oasis for reflection and rejuvenation with music at the centre of its philosophy.

Rosario

Rosario: a converted convent, home to music, poetry, reflection and rejuvenation

Guests are invited to stay in simple rooms with wooden floors and furniture – nothing in Rosario is surplus and yet I have spent the most comfortable nights of my life within its walls. Meals are taken in company at the long wooden table, either indoors with the aromas wafting through from the bustling kitchen or, in summer time, in the courtyard surrounded by nature. Only organic, fair-trade ingredients are allowed to cross the threshold into Rosario, where they are combined in delicious dishes to nourish both body and soul.

The opening concert of Musica Sacra took place in the chapel of a Capuchin monastery tucked away in a neighbouring village. The chapel itself remains largely unchanged since its founding of 1616 by the Arenberg family, a secret gem now hidden among the bustling cobbled streets of the town that has grown up around it. The Arenbergs were once one of the richest families in the Benelux countries – at their most prosperous the family’s land stretched unbroken all the way to Russia. Beneath the chapel where we performed is the crypt where nearly one hundred members of the Arenberg family lie entombed.

This concert exposed many significances, some intentional, and others even we had not planned or considered. In accordance with the religious sincerity of the event, applause was reserved until the end of the concert which proceeded unbroken between each musical offering.

Our programme began and ended with Arvo Pärt, in particular tribute to his attendance at the 2008 Musica Sacra festival. Für Alina was dedicated to a young 18 year old girl just setting off to pursue her studies in London. At the heart of the piece is simplicity, indeed it was designed to be playable by any pianist, regardless of technical advancement. It is particularly notable for its bell-like tolling, the first piece to showcase Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style for which he became famous.

Tintinnabuli: from the latin tintinnabulum – bell

Benjamin Britten’s enigmatic 3rd Suite for Cello emerged out of the silence, with a deep tolling pizzicato on the open C string accompanying a simple melody whose narrow range and speech-like contour creates the sense of melancholy at the heart of Russian plainchant. At this exact moment the bells of surrounding churches began to sound their tribute to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, their music filtering through the thick stone walls.

In this moment, everybody, of any religion or none at all, felt the presence of a higher being, or intention: the bells were tolling on the same note that underpinned the cello’s music – C.

The 3rd Suite concludes with the exposure of its central themes, that is, a collection of Russian folk tunes, taken from Tchaikovsky’s arrangements, and finally the Kontakion of the Russian liturgy. These references were Britten’s special tribute to his friend and the piece’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The Arenbergs’ ancient ties to Russia rang with silent significance from the crypt below.

Another English composer continued this programme: Sir John Tavener’s Pratirupa for solo piano held sway for thirty minutes fluctuating from celestial serenity to the deepest fires of violence piano and pianist could muster. Tavener, (like Musica Sacra) is interested in the exploration of many world religions, their differences and what unites them.

Pratirupa: Sanskrit for ‘reflection, likeness’

Finally, a return to Pärt and the familiar calm of Spiegel im Spiegel. The title means Mirrors in Mirrors and thus continued the theme of musical reflections.

The closing chord died away and one by one, audience members and performers surfaced from their respective reveries. The audience kindly applauded and stood to show their appreciation and we were presented with sunflowers by two children. It was at this moment that the low clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the dusty windows, gilding the chapel’s beauties and casting a warm glow across the congregation.

Relevant links:

James Lisney

Joy Lisney

Rosario

Musica Sacra