Every once in a while an unexpected set of circumstances creates a moment that reaches in and touches you in ways so startling that the memory is sure to stay with you for the rest of your life. It was the first morning after arriving in Reykjavik and I decided to go out shooting. It was dark, cold and windy with one squall of sleet rolling in after the other and not much was catching my interest. In the distance I caught a glimpse of the spire of Hallgrímskirkja, the hallmark church of Reykjavik, and I started towards it. By the time I got there the weather was utterly miserable and so windy it was hard to walk upright all while being pelted with snow and hail.
I stepped through the front door and could hear the organ playing in the church and so I went inside where to my surprise I found myself alone with the organist who was practicing.
The church is immense and although it is classified as Expressionist architecture I think a better term for the inside would be is neo-gothic. The arches and windows seem to go on forever with the nave disappearing in the distance. The sound from the 5,500 pipes organ was coming from everywhere and the whole experience was so unexpected and overwhelming it took my breath away. Little did I know that the experience I just had was about to be dwarfed beyond anything I could image.
I was in the church by myself for only about 5 minutes after which other people came in all while I went about my business of making photographs. This went on for about 30 minutes, with people coming and going, after which the organist packed up and left and I decided to leave as well. As I headed out the door I passed a couple of people coming in all dressed in black and carrying sheets of music. On a whim I decided to go back in and see what that was all about and discovered them setting up stands for a small choir.
There were 15 members of the choir as well as an organist and they started out with Bach’s 10th and last movement of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147" also known as “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.” The voices of the choir were clear as bells as they rose to the roof and into every corner of the cathedral. Bach was a crafty musician and his music can inspire, humble and awe anyone at the best of times. But when it is performed in in its right environment, like an immense cathedral, the experience turns from listening to an awe inspiring piece of music into something which can best be described as a near religious experience. The very fabric of time changed as it was measured out with every single perfect note bringing tears to the eyes of the audience.
Eventually Bach ended and the choir went on to sing some Schubert and some other pieces I did not know. However, the pièce de résistance came when the choir for their final piece started on a Danish hymn “Dejlig are Jorden” also known in English as "Fairest Lord Jesus", or "Beautiful Savior." The rendition could not have been more perfect with a solo soprano doing an alternate version well above the rest of the melody line – the notes hung suspended in the cathedral for what seemed like an eternity. It was all completely unexpected to me and although it was a hymn that was part of my life growing up I have not heard this music for a very long time. It instantly transported me back in time to when, as a youth, we used to go to the annual church Christmas concerts and mass. The sounds, feelings and memories of my youth came pouring out like overflowing eaves after a prairie thunderstorm and for a few moments I was a child again in Denmark as surely as if I was still living there.
Keywords: Denmark, Growing up, Hallgrímskirkja, Hallmark, Iceland, Reykjavik, church, memories, youth
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