Stavanger Cathedral was started in 1123 – 1128 by Bishop Reinhald (or Reginald) who came from Winchester, England. Th is explains the Anglo-Norman architecture. It had a tower and a square chancel which were destroyed by fire in 1272, and the rebuilding was done in the newer Gothic style, with two towers and a magnificent chance. On the outside wall, you can see the difference in the two periods.
The story is that, because a cathedral of this size cost a lot of money, the diocese was always poor. The bishop agreed to marry the divorced King Sigurd The Crusader to his new wife, and the King gave the bishopric both land and money. When King Sigurd and his son died, the next king hanged Bishop Reinhald because he would not tell where the treasure was hidden.
We went to this concert. I didn’t know what to expect, but thought that hearing an a-cappella choral concert in a 12th century cathedral would be an interesting experience – what would the acoustics be like, anyway?
It was a cold, snowy evening –
The choir came up the aisle – young people of university age, all dressed in black. They started right in with some very old church music – and one could immediately understand why so much of it was contrapuntal. The harmonies wove around each other, echoing off the stone walls and the sound was ethereal. I wasn’t sure how David would like a whole evening of this, but I needn’t have worried. After an explanation of the piece and the next few pieces, in Norwegian which, of course, we didn’t understand a word of, they were singing again – in French and Norwegian and English…. and a bit of German as well, but I’m not sure.
Soon, it was intermission, and the singers walked back to the entry of the church. The church was really quite chilly (answering David’s question as to how they were heated in the old days), and it was quite funny to look back and see the young musicians jumping around and waving their arms in an attempt to warm up. I asked a lady seated nearby if this was a university group, and she explained that they came from all over Norway, and some but not all were music students. Several times a year, they gather in one place for a weekend of rehearsal and then give a concert. This weekend, Stavanger was the luck destination.
Soon they were on again, but instead of going all the way to the front, they spaced themselves evenly in two rows along the main aisle, and, facing each other, sang a hymn in English. The sound was amazing – we could still hear every part, just as if they were all standing right in front of us.
Back to the front – the music ranged from Negro spirituals to show tunes to a rousing rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”, where most of the choir played the part of the instrumental accompaniment.
Finally, the last piece – and as they sang, these twenty young people from all over Norway began walking to the back of the church………… and the sound didn’t change! Even when they were all singing away from the audience and behind our backs, if I had closed my eyes, I never would have believed they weren’t right in front of me.
THAT is 12th century engineering and acoustics!