St. Peter’s Church sits at a busy junction on the North Circular Road, in Phibsborough, Dublin. The interior of the church is surprisingly quiet, but because of the Mater Hospital nearby, the silence is often broken by passing ambulances. This juxtaposition is part and parcel of St. Peter’s. I recall a parish priest describing the sirens as an effective counterpoint, never quite shattering the tranquillity and therefore only serving to reinforce it. Once, I deliberately waited in the church for the sound of an ambulance, listening intently as the high-pitched wailing rose to a crescendo and then bled away into the background. The ensuing silence seemed quieter than what had preceded it—an illusion, maybe. I sat in one of the pews and tried to pinpoint how I felt. Alive. Grateful. Strong. The strength I took from the deep well of stillness surprised me.
Around that time, St. Peter’s Singers of which I am a member, was preparing for a performance at Basilica de la Milagrosa, Madrid. We’re a mixed-voice choir with a broad repertoire, from Irish to classical to wedding pieces. Normally we practiced at St. Peter’s, but on this particular September evening, the church was in use so we met at the home of Helen, our musical director.
Sixteen of us piled into the good backroom, some sitting on the sofa, others on finely upholstered chairs, the rest huddling inside the door. It was very different from our regular church setting. Plush and carpeted. Warmer. More intimate. Feeling a bit nervous, I played a game to myself, assigning words for each letter of Helen’s name.
H for hair.
She was seated at the piano, frowning in concentration. Musical scores were passing through her hands, like a photocopier on automatic. Tenor, bass, alto, soprano; sharps, flats, majors, minors; organizing, delegating, listening, instructing. This was Helen, in the zone.
Benedictus, from The Armed Man—a Mass for Peace, by Karl Jenkins, was to be our choral finale in Madrid and more work was needed. We nudged and shushed one another as Helen arranged the pages on the music rack and began to play the opening salvo. In no time, our world shrank to that crowded room. The acoustic piano sounded fuller and more authentic than the church’s electric one. The energy was palpable, mysterious, almost like that first candle lit during a power cut. Then, as Helen moved to the music, the piano stool creaked—an excruciating wood-on-wood sound. Every time I thought it had stopped, it resumed its noisy protest. I stared at the stool and wondered how many years of practice it had endured, from Helen, her siblings, and maybe even those gone before her? There was no let-up in the creaking, but the more I listened the more the sound began to meld with the rhythm and beauty of the recital. Glancing around, I observed my fellow choristers, clutching pens and highlighters, gazing at the floor or into the half-distance, some in open-eyed contemplation, others with eyes closed, barely breathing, for fear of disturbing the moment.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini,
Hosanna in excelsis
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest.
After practice, I walked the North Circular Road past St. Peter’s. Spotlights illuminated the base of the church, but the overall impression was one of tremendous darkness. I put my phone to my ear and played my recording of Benedictus from earlier. There it was; Helen’s razor-sharp rendition coupled with the pain-filled creaking sound, low and persistent as if testifying to a lifetime of human effort. To endless hours of practice. To good days and bad.
The night was warm and close so I folded my jacket and placed it over my arm. My earlier anxiety had passed and suddenly I couldn’t wait for Madrid. I walked toward home with a spring in my step, playing and replaying Benedictus, and making a mental note to save the clip to my computer. I had been around long enough to know that precious moments come out of nowhere and may never repeat themselves.
Cover image by Andrik Langfield.