A double celebration will see Exeter Cathedral throw open its doors to the sound of birdsong at 7am on Monday 24 May.
The Cathedral will host an early morning recital of organ music to launch a week-long festival of birds and birdsong, organised by the London Review of Books (LRB). It will be the first public event held in the Cathedral since reopening from lockdown, and is open to all and free of charge to attend in person.
For those who can’t get to Exeter, the recital will also be broadcast online via an LRB livestream to festival ticket-holders.
The recital will feature four pieces of music by Olivier Messiaen and played by James McVinnie. It will include conversation, exploring the influences and experiences that led the French composer to create such involved and imaginative music, touching upon the impact of his synesthesia, a rare condition which allowed Messiaen to see colours in his mind’s eye when he heard sounds.
James McVinnie explains: “A devout Catholic, Olivier Messiaen was an extraordinary voice in 20th century music. He saw God’s work in every aspect of the world which extended especially to his fascination with birds. Much of his organ music includes his own representation of birdsong: he coaxes unusual combinations of sounds from the organ to portray these unique songs, many of which he notated himself from nature. I’ve chosen four works which feature birdsong prominently, including the nightingale, blackbird, Eurasian blackcap and the yellow hammer (a familiar sight and sound on farmland across the UK). Keen listeners will also hear the rustlings of remote rainforests.
“I’m especially looking forward to performing this challenging music at such an unusual time of day! Exeter Cathedral itself is an incredible space, a kind of resonating chamber for music that has also been described as the embodiment of a heavenly garden. With daylight streaming in through the stained glass in the east windows, the magnificence of the building’s roof carvings, and the vertical pillars that seem to reach for the sky, there really is no better place to be playing this music.”
Exeter Cathedral’s Canon Precentor, The Revd Canon James Mustard, is keen to welcome visitors back for the first public recital in the building since lockdown:
“Between opening for services and personal prayer, the Cathedral has been sadly empty due to coronavirus restrictions, so I can think of no better way to mark a new dawn as we emerge from lockdown. I would urge anyone minded to join us at that time of the morning to come along. It will be a truly memorable moment in local history, well worth the early start.”
Sam Kinchin-Smith, the LRB’s Head of Special Projects, adds: ‘Our collaboration with the talented team at Exeter Cathedral is a great example of how pandemic improvisations can become exciting new directions for cultural institutions as normal life starts to resume. The combination of a real-life recital and a livestream, utilising all the expertise accrued by the LRB and the cathedral after a year of digital events and online broadcasting, will bring James McVinnie’s remarkable talents to as large an audience as possible. It feels like a leap into the future; like something really exciting taking flight.’
The recital is free to attend in person at the Cathedral. No advance booking is required but places are limited due to covid restrictions and will be allocated as people arrive. Anyone wishing to watch the live stream can buy a festival ticket (and see the full programme) through the LRB.