The Magic of Song
You dream of nights like this. A magnificent basilica filled with glorious voices and an appreciative audience.
I had been given a taste of such an occasion while hitchhiking through England many years ago.
Stopping by Salisbury Cathedral of an evening I had the good fortune of hearing a boy’s choir from the nearby college rehearse. Their voices resonated beautifully throughout the spires.
It happened again in London that same year when the combined choirs of nurses in that city gathered on the steps of St Martins in the Field to sing Christmas carols.
And it snowed during the singing. Once, as it turned out, of only two times it had snowed in London in the 20th century.
There was a feeling of anticipation on this Saturday in September 2016, as the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir coach made its way up to Esztergom, on the banks of the Danube River and with Slovakia on the other side of its waters.
As the coach driver negotiated those narrow tree-lined streets it was hard to imagine it to be the centre of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary.
Then suddenly you could see why. There on top of the hill surrounded by lawns and trees was the basilica.
The third largest cathedral in Europe, after St Peters in Rome and St Pauls in London.
The sight of it brought “oohs” and “aahs” from the choir members on board the bus.
The sheer size of the building, its massive columns at front and the dome … imposing. At the same time welcoming and protective as it caught the last rays of day.
The Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert, opened in 1856, stands 328 feet high and regarded as a masterpiece of Classicism.
Esztergom has always played an important role in Hungary’s history since being established around 972AD.
The seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Esztergom was the birth and coronation place of the first Hungarian king, St Stephen, as well as the capital city until the 13th century.
While the choir’s first performance in Hungary at Matthias Church in Budapest was so pleasing, walking inside this glorious cathedral promised even better.
The expansive floor space, the altar, the alcoves and the huge cupola overhead.
Time permitted the choir to observe and acquaint themselves with the layout of the building they were about to perform in.
And, most of all, to prepare themselves for the carry of sound … in the short rehearsal time it became evident there was about six seconds delay and the sound of voices echoed through the sacred spaces.
The benefit of being able to rehearse in the venue gave the choir and music director Sandra Milliken the chance to work out positioning of singers and how the acoustics fit with the songs.
Then it was time to change … in the remains of the royal castle across the cobbled courtyard and that is now a museum no less.
From this vantage point high on the banks of the Danube River you look northward into neighbouring Slovakia.
The fiery red sunset highlights the arches of the 500m-long Mária Valéria bridge that joins Esztergom in Hungary and Štúrovo in Slovakia.
As day gives way to night the choir files into the basilica, two abreast.
Right from the welcome address by Sandra Millikin and the first notes from the choir of Salve Regina, one of 12 Latin chants, it was obvious how absorbed the audience was by the program.
They hung on every note. And at the end of each number you could hear the applause build in appreciation.
The acoustics were such that even the softest hymn or ballad saw the voices rise up through the basilica. Like the voices of angels.
It would be hard to expect the choir to sing at a better venue.
Ave Maria, Missa Picolla, Locus este, The Blessing and Esti dal were among those warmly applauded.
“Another big day on tour!” Sandra Milliken said. “We performed a beautiful concert in Europe’s third largest cathedral: Esztergom Basilica.
“I have never heard an acoustic like this in my life!
“My Missa piccola was beyond belief and the Hungarian composed Esti dal received a standing ovation from the crowd.”
That applause continued from their calls for an encore, to their appreciation of Esti dal to the choir as they filed out of the grand basilica.
Some, who had come from Germany, were going to follow the choir to Vienna.
The smiles on the faces and the enthusiastic clapping showed how much the choices of the music program and the choir had touched them.
“A most appreciative audience,” Sandra said afterwards, “and proof that music has a powerful connection with people all over the world.
“The choir sang superbly. Bravi tutti!”