I am not Catholic or Anglican or any other denomination that makes use of a cathedral, but I love an old church wherever I can find one – Jerusalem, Italy, London – anywhere at all. I live in daily horror of the big-box warehouse-looking monstrosities that pass as modern American churches today. Whenever I dare to say that out loud, I get the inevitable lecture about the church being the people, not the building. Yeah, yeah. I get that.
But give me a cathedral. A Gothic-arched, stained-glassed stone fortress filled with crosses and candles and black-robed men swinging censers, where the air is thick with incense and Latin prayers and Gregorian chant. For some reason, the very quiet of it all – the fact that there are no would-be stars with microphones, no overpowering sound systems pummeling my eardrums, no music video announcements – that deep, ancient quiet turns my thoughts toward God like nothing else.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom as the locals call it, was the reason we were in Vienna. It was the centerpiece for the story we were shooting, the headquarters of the Viennese army during the Ottoman siege of 1529. Here, the men of Vienna prayed and swore to die, if necessary, for the Christian faith. Here, the German mercenaries who were sent to help them planned each attack and counter-attack. Here, in one of the top towers, an artist sketched the view beyond Vienna: miles and miles of Ottoman tents and trenches full of jihadists trying to tunnel their way into the city. His work still survives today: a giant circular woodcut “map” known as the “Meldeman Plan.”
The church also has a lot of history after the siege. Here, Beethoven discovered the scope of his deafness when he watched the birds fly out of the bell tower and realized that he couldn’t hear the bells. This was the site of both Mozart’s wedding and his funeral. And here, more to my musical taste, Sarah Brightman recorded her live album Symphony in 2008.
My crew and I had our own interesting moments here, from the ridiculous to the sublime. While we turned our cameraman Lior loose in the cathedral with a camera and dolly, the rest of us got a personal tour of the church’s underground crypt, a network of musty subterranean tunnels filled with skeletons and skulls.
Which was very cool… until the guide told us the backstory. The bones belonged to thousands of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century. So many people died that the bodies were dumped quickly and anonymously in the crypt. However, the stench of the rotting flesh made the church above uninhabitable, so prisoners were sent down to the crypts as punishment to scrub the flesh off the bones.
There are worse things than the death penalty.
Back upstairs to the cathedral. We were allowed two hours to shoot video one morning, and while Lior shot, the rest of us milled around the cathedral, trying to forget what we had just heard in the crypt. Suddenly, the entire sanctuary erupted in song: a cappella, both men and women, harmonizing perfectly in Latin. I followed the sound to see a group of tourists – no doubt a professional choir – who had spontaneously starting singing. I looked at Lior, and he stopped what he was doing, grabbed the camera and set it down directly in front of them. He captured the music, but I’m not sure any camera could have captured that moment when every person in that enormous cathedral suddenly stood still and listened; when my crew and I all looked each other and felt the same thing at the same time; when we heard a song of such purity that it felt as if God was in the room with us, getting even more joy out of it than we were.
We recorded that music and agreed that somehow, it had to be part of the story we were producing. When you watch the story, you’ll see that it’s mostly muskets and cannons and war. But in the end, in the last 30 seconds, the story goes back to St. Stephen’s, and as you see the beautiful footage Lior shot inside, you’ll hear that music in the background. The story starts with a foreign invasion and a Muslim chant; but I wanted it, like the battle itself, to end with a church and a hymn. I wanted that spontaneous song to be the last thing that you hear.
It’s amazing what you can hear when it’s quiet.