Essay | Being There

ITALY, Music, Rome, Student Essays

Sara Couden, M.M. ‘14, voice

One of the more incredible music-related experiences we had in Rome was singing Palestrina’s Missa Ave Maria as part of the Sunday service at the Church of SS. Trinita dei Pellegrini, a church where Palestrina himself actually worked. Being able to sing in acoustic conditions Palestrina might have had in mind while composing the piece we were performing, standing in a choir loft Palestrina actually stood in, and hearing the music as he would have heard it while performing it—these aspects of the experience were truly amazing, more amazing than I could have imagined; however, they were also things I might have expected had I attempted to conceptualize what singing Palestrina’s music in one of the composer’s churches might mean.

Voxtet members Mindy Chu, Molly Netter, and Sara Couden spell "ISM"

Voxtet members Mindy Chu, Molly Netter, and Sara Couden spell “ISM”

Things I never could have anticipated—graffiti carved into the front of the loft by fifteenth-century choirboys, the smell of the wood, stone, and dust where we were standing, the way that the treble solos in the Benedictus somehow embodied the clear softness of the shafts of light falling from tall windows through incense to the altar, the fact that the music we sang was an integrated, expected part of prayer and service—these were the rich details I never could have anticipated without participating in the action of that particular moment. The whole of the experience added up to something even more incredible than the sum of its incredible parts. It was a gift.

As much as I would like to share the whole of the ISM study tour experience, it’s just not possible to do so—it must be impossible to truly share what any experience means. But in the end, I think that this inexpressibility was a large part of the point of the study tour: to show rather than tell, to let us in on the details we couldn’t have known.