An historic week, full of tradition. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly Ascension Day (Thursday) with a Festal Eucharist in the morning – what better for this than Vierne – and Cambridge's own Charles Villiers Stanford inspiring Festal Evensong with his Evening Service in A and Coelos Ascendit Hodie. Most special on Ascension day is our own, century-old tradition of singing from the roof of the Chapel Tower at noon. This unique service once again attracted press attention as "harmonious sounds rose from the rooftop of St John’s" (Cambridge News).
Hundreds of people, including pupils from St John's College School gathered in the First Court of St John’s to listen to the choir sing the Ascension Day Carol, The Lord Ascendeth up on high, arranged Praetorius, from the Chapel roof.
This tradition was begun in 1902 by the Director of Music, Cyril Rootham, following a conversation with Sir Joseph Larmor. Sir Joseph, a famous physicist and mathematician, was insistent that a choir on the top of the tower would not be heard from the ground. Rootham was keen to prove him wrong and saw Ascension Day was the obvious time to do it. In secret, the Choir ascended the tower and started to sing an Ascension motet (O Rex Gloriae, Palestrina) as the clock struck noon. To Rootham’s delight, Larmor’s window in the court below flew open as he looked to see where the music was coming from. The event proved very popular and has been repeated every year since, with members of College, School and Public gathering in the court below.
It's always a huge excitement for the Choristers for whom the 163ft tower (the tallest structure in Cambridge) would seem even bigger and the Gents enjoy the various customs which come with it, mostly relating to footwear...perhaps 163ft in the air puts the other Cambridge Chapels in perspective!
Every year after the tower service, the Gents head to the local pub – not their current 'local', the Maypole, but the former local of the Gents for half a century, the Baron of Beef, just across the road from Chapel. 'The Baron' was the favourite of Dr George Guest, Director of Music here for over 40 years (1951-91) and the Gents dedicate this pint to his memory on this day every year. Guest can be heard on BBC R4's recently uploaded recording of Desert Island Discs from 1976.
Tuesday's Joint Evensong with Trinity Choir in Trinity Chapel, conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, also provided some excitement and Mr Nethsingha reminded us of his 'triple threat' with an organ recital on Sunday evening. It's always good to see former Gents and Choristers back in town. All Cambridge students (at least those with 'thirds' and above) are also fortunate to receive an automatic MA seven years or so after they matriculate. The combination of these two in the form of 2008's leaving Gents returning to Cambridge to get their MAs meant that College and the Maypole were certainly not lacking any energy this weekend.