Silence and Music

Silence and music would seem at first glance to be two opposites, having nothing in common with each other, mutually exclusive. However, the similarities are more striking than you might expect. Both are capable of communicating a great range of emotional expressions; both provoke reactions, sometimes considered and thoughtful, sometimes forceful; and there are times when both can communicate more articulately than words.

The modern world in which we live dislikes silence to such an extent that to encounter it can be a shock; I remember arriving at the Abbey of Solesmes for the first time in 2013 and entering the church – the silence was almost deafening. The world saves silence for special occasions when language is insufficient: remembering the war dead, for example, or times of national mourning. It is interesting in itself that even amongst the noise and bluster of today's fast-moving world, there are moments when only silence can convey what society wants, and needs, to say.

Silence and music have always found an important place within the liturgy, but the Church makes special use of silence at key moments in its liturgical life. The laying on of hands during Ordinations takes place in silence, as does the solemn moment of Confirmation. During this season of Lent, both silence and music are employed to great effect. The idea of fasting takes on many forms: the priest wears penitential purple vestments; the Alleluia is omitted; the choral music is of a darker, more serious character; flowers are removed; the organ falls silent. With so much great organ music being suitable for Lent and Passiontide, it can seem a shame that it is left out of the liturgy. (It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Sunday recitals continue, giving an opportunity for some of these works to be heard in a different context.) The silence left in its place doesn't just leave a feeling of emptiness, however; it is an eloquent silence, full of meaning, and an important part of the experience of Lent. Rather than being merely the lack of something, it expresses something in its own right, something that cannot be expressed in any other way.

This silence is at first rather startling. The lack of a voluntary after the dismissal always comes as something as a surprise, even to the person sitting on the organ bench! Once the initial shock has subsided, however, the silence speaks more and more powerfully. The darkness of the liturgy becomes darker as we enter Holy Week; the silence, paradoxically, grows louder. The bells are silenced after the Gloria of Maundy Thursday, signalling the start of a liturgical silence that lasts until the Gloria of Easter night, a silence that nobody seems to want to break. The great Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday begins with the most profound silence of the year, the introductory rites being replaced by the silent prostration of all the clergy before the bare altar. Silence is the only possible response to the Passion, and the liturgy gives us the important opportunity to be quiet in the shadow of the Cross.

The avant-garde eccentric, John Cage, famously 'composed' his best-known work 4'33" – which consists of four and a half minutes of silence – to demonstrate the absence of true silence in the world. He described being in a soundproof room and being aware of two sounds, which a doctor later told him were the sounds of his blood circulation and his nervous system. Whilst 4'33" is often thought of as clichéd and dated, it proves that sound always surrounds us. Even in Westminster Cathedral, it can seem that silence is difficult to find. A few years ago, St Patrick's Day fell on a Sunday of Lent. Following the blessing and dismissal of the Solemn Mass that morning, the expected silence was broken by a man playing the bagpipes outside the west door!

Silence is a vital ingredient in music, both in its composition and in its performance. Mozart is said to have believed that 'music is not in the notes, but in the silence between', while other composers appear to suggest silence through their music. Olivier Messiaen, one of the most original composers of the twentieth century, was a great mystic with a profound Catholic faith, and used music as a vehicle to communicate his religious beliefs. Throughout his long compositional life, he used ecstatically slow tempi to create a mood of rapt contemplation, of music emerging from and returning to silent meditation. L'institution de l'Eucharistie, which will be played before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, comes from his last great organ cycle, the Livre du Saint Sacrement. As well as his trademark use of birdsong, Messiaen employs silences of varying lengths in between repetitions of the same chord. The prayerful, hypnotic effect he creates is truly 'in tune' with silence, which is itself the only natural response to the piece.

As well as composers including or suggesting silence in their works, performers often use silence for dramatic effect. Bach's St John Passion, which the Cathedral Choir will perform on 16th March, tells the story of Christ's Passion through the use of recitative, in which the Gospel text is sung syllabically by a solo voice and punctuated with chords. As the moment of Christ's death approaches, the silences become longer, suggesting the growing darkness, and expressing the gravity of that moment.

Music, as a natural thing, needs breathing space. Perhaps Lent provides us with a 'breathing space', a time to be quiet. Without silence, there can be no music. Only after the silence of Lent does the explosive joy of Easter become possible. The Easter Vigil begins in complete darkness as well as silence, before being transformed into blinding light and the deafening, celebratory din of the strepitus. Only then can we rejoice not just in music, but in sound itself, as if all the tension of the previous six weeks has been released in an instant. Until then, we should try to notice and truly appreciate the silence of Lent, and consider all that it has to say.


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