In the footsteps of St James

Photos show the choir singing at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Photos show the choir singing at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Veronica Stivala joined the St Paul Choral Society on their musical journey that followed in the footsteps of St James on the Camino de Santiago and saw them perform at four of the most magnificent edifices in Christendom

From the towering beautiful gothic Cathedral of Burgos, to the León Cathedral with its nearly 1,800 square metres of stained glass, the Church of San Martiño Pinario, to the world renowned Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the St Paul Choral Society’s latest tour was by far its most ambitious in scope. The group of 42 choristers (plus another 30 supporters) travelled some 800km from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela during the first week of September. The choir sang at these, four of the most magnificent edifices in Christiandom, as they followed parts of the path that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims take on foot each year when they walk to the shine of the apostle of St James. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, is the culmination of the journey of these pilgrims.

Founded and conducted by Dr Hugo Agius Muscat, the SPCS has established itself as one of Malta’s leading choirs. The choir has performed with big names such as Joseph Calleja, and at prestigious venues such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Stephansdom in Vienna, l’Église de la Madeleine and Église Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Their repertoire is wide and spans from the 16th century to the present day. I was lucky to join the choir on this memorable journey of angelic music, cheerful bus rides, mesmerising architecture, and but a taste of the spiritual joy and accomplishments that the pilgrims experience as they reach their goal. I heard shouts of happiness, listened to cheerful singing in the street and witnessed embraces of relief and triumph.

The tour reached its peak with the choir’s grand performance at the famous Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The choir’s first choral and organ music concert was performed at a completely packed Cathedral of Burgos. Built in the 13th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is one of the finest examples of French Gothic constructions in Spain. Most impressive is the exterior, especially the façade of Saint Mary, inspired by the cathedrals of Paris and Reims and inside its – yes – 15 chapels. The choral repertoire included B. Marcello’s I cieli immensi narrano, H. L. Hassler’s Dixit Maria, and Francesco Azopardi’s Virgo Prudentissima. When he was not conducting, Agius Muscat joined Elisabeth Conrad, the resident organist for the tour, in playing organ solos, and their repertoire included Caprice sur les grands jeux by L. N. Clérambault, Fugue in G minor by J. M. de Oxinagas, Fuga (D minor) by Luigi Grech, Sonata IV in G minor by Luigi Grech and Tiento de Batalla by S. Aguilera de Heredia. All of the choir’s programmes included several choral and organ works by Maltese composers.

It is difficult to say which city was prettier because each had its own remarkable idiosyncrasies. Definitely etched in my memory are the gorgeous frescoes, still in their original form, at the Pantheon Museum that forms part of the León Cathedral.

As we moved northwest, the air cooled down and the excitement grew as the choir finally reached Santiago de Compostela. The choir was treated to a special tour of the Monastery and Church of San Martiño Pinario before their performance that same evening. At 20,000 square metres, it is the second largest monastery in Spain, with 365 windows, one for each day of the year. The old edifice dates back to AD890 although it underwent considerable rebuilding and modification, to accommodate its growing inhabitants. We learnt a little secret about the many statues and decorations, which although look as though they are made of marble, are in fact, made of wood, a natural resource in particular abundance in this part of Spain.

The tour reached its peak with the choir’s grand performance at the famous Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and which takes place every Friday. For the Introit, the choir sang Bruckner’s anthem Locus iste; for the Ordinary of the Mass, it performed the whole of Joseph Vella’s English Mass; and it closed with Marcello’s I cieli immensi narrano. Despite being the performers, the event is so popular that the choristers had to be seated some two hours before the Mass and, as soon as anyone got up for one reason or another, their seat was immediately prey to standing patrons.

This was indeed a performance like no other, particularly because all present witnessed at the end of the Mass the gravity defying swinging of the Botafumeiro, an enormous incense burner. As the cathedral filled with smoke, the sweet aroma surrounded everyone, soaring to lofty heights. Its mystical charm is unparalleled and left many filled with wonder, some fear!

In addition to being treated to the wonderful concerts, I enjoyed joining in the camaraderie that came with this large group of choristers and friends who travelled together, enduring some rather long bus rides but reaping the rewards of seeing some of Spain’s bucolic scenery and beautiful architecture. The choir was particularly lucky to have Chiara Felice, a chorister but also a Spain buff and aficionado who took us on guided tours and offered insight into the country’s history, culture and customs. I particularly enjoyed our stop in Fromista, one of the Romanesque jewels of the Camino. Its main attraction is the Iglesia de San Martín, whose vault is filled with biblical scenes and rural legends, some of which have not yet been deciphered.

The choir has set the bar high and I look forward to the next tour. But before that, the celebrations for the choir’s 20th anniversary, this year.

The choir’s tour in Spain was financially supported by the Cultural Export Fund of the Arts Council Malta, private sponsors, and not least the members themselves.

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