On Friday 20 April, Lynne and I headed to Rome to hear a performance of my 'Stabat Mater' in the Vatican on the Sunday evening. The concert was given by the original performers, The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia. It was premiered by them in the UK a few years ago, a commission from John Studzinski's Genesis Foundation. This extraordinary man had then convinced everyone, right up to Pope Francis, that the work should be performed (with a live feed on Classic FM) in the Sistine Chapel.
There was an invited audience of about 500, mostly Brits, but not all. The Genesis Foundation had flown out the choir, orchestra and composer, and had laid on a lunch for special guests, a private tour of St Peter's Basilica and a private mass at the very tomb of St Peter underneath. At the rehearsal on Sunday afternoon an English member of the Sistine Chapel choir showed me the balcony where the papal choirs have sung for hundreds of years, Palestrina, Allegri and Josquin des Pres among them. The latter had even carved his signature on the wall, perhaps bored during a four-hour vespers. I was in composer's heaven – and pinching myself.
In the audience was my friend Cardinal Vincent Nichols (who I am interviewing at the Boswell Book Festival on 5 May), and I spotted other members of the Curia, as well as members of the Upper House, Lords Heseltine, Alton and Baroness Kennedy (who said that the event made her proud to be Scottish. Shucks). Janis and Emma from my publishers, Boosey and Hawkes were there, as was an old university pal, Pauline. (Emma lost her partner a few months ago.) Lynne and I used to be Lay Dominicans and there was a comforting smattering of white-robed Dominicans in the audience, as well as clergy from the English, Scots and American Colleges in Rome.
When the musicians began their rehearsal, there was a palpable sense of delight among them at the incredibly intense acoustic in the chapel. Their performance later, conducted by the amazing Harry Christophers, was powerful and unrelenting. Under the Michelangelo frescos and his gigantic painting of the 'Last Judgement,' my 'Stabat Mater' unfolded as the singularly most significant spiritual moment of my life. The last movement asks Mary to intervene on our behalf before God on the Day of Judgement. As we listened, we looked up at Mary beside her Son as the judging unfolds.
After the performance an elderly gent approached me and told me that his wife had died three weeks ago. He had just seen her soul rising into Heaven, and asked me if I had ever experienced the grief he was going through. Yes, I replied as I dissolved into silent tears of sadness. And joy.
The Boswell Book Festival takes place at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, from 4-6 May. Click here
for the brochure.