A dream fulfilled

At the age of 13 I vowed never to sing again in a choir, which was a bit unfair to the choir I was actually in for four years. It was quite fun and it had its advantages. Choir practice occurred during the long midday break, so we got an extra half hour added onto our bedtimes by way of compensation. Or, in the summer term when everyone got the extra half hour, we got an extra sweet ration. We had a good choirmaster, and we learned a good mix of religious and secular songs. We often got the day off to go and sing at weddings, for which some form of edible recompense was usually available. I remember us all being invited to the reception, once, where I learned that caviar tastes exactly like you would expect fish eggs to taste. There were occasional ventures to singing festivals or competitions in the area and I remember being part of a multi-choir festival thing singing ‘Carmina Burana’ to a packed house.
But it was also all a bit too much like hard work for something that was meant to be enjoyable, and after the mandatory term in the choir decreed at my next school for all new boys who could sing, I exercised my right to leave for good. I still know how to sing in tune, keep a beat and hit my notes – all useful skills.
As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of joining up again, here and there, now and then – a local choral society, maybe, or something G&S – but again the thought of all those rehearsals to be any good just seems too time consuming where I could be doing something else. But when your local church advertises the chance to doMessiah, rehearsals and performance in one day only – experienced soloists and orchestra, otherwise no experience required – what’s to lose?
And so I was one of about 100 volunteers of varying experience – knowing every note backwards down to complete debutantes – who turned up at Christ Church on Saturday morning. I was ahead of some in that I had actually sung in a choir before, albeit 33 years earlier. The church was arranged landscape format to accommodate choir and a small orchestra, and we were left to self-sort into soprano, alto, tenor or bass. I guessed I would probably be bass and this turned out to be correct.
I presume that anyone who was totally, irredeemably, awfully flat (and I know for a fact they exist in our congregation) would have been gently turned away, but that didn’t seem to happen. There again the organisers may have adopted the Florence Foster Jennings philosophy – “they can say I can’t sing but they can never say I didn’t sing.”
As a final shakedown we ran through scales and phrases, with the advice that “if you can’t sing this then you’re a [whatever comes next down]”, right up to the point where bats fall out of the sky as the Hallelujah Chorus’s “King of kings” gets ever higher and higher. And then we started.
I had vaguely assumed different workshops for different voices but no, we worked through the whole thing together, chorus by chorus and learning to put the right emphasis on “Wonderful counsellor”, the right scorn and disgust into “iniquities” (say it like you’re Michael Howard, is the answer to that one), the right sarcasm into “he trusted in God”.
The assumption was that everyone who came at least vaguely knew the piece already, which is a dangerous assumption because when you have to sing a specific voice you come to the sudden realisation that you don’t actually know the tune. You know “the tune”, i.e. the bit you could whistle or hum if you listened to a recording, but you don’t know the specific notes you ought to be singing which sometimes are completely not the notes you thought you knew. Fortunately I was sitting next to one of the knows-it-backwards crowd (whose friend was a Doctor Who fan, I discovered by virtue of wearing my TARDIS cufflinks), and I can read music well enough to tell how many beats each note should last and approximately how further up or down the next one is than the last one, so all in all I got by.
My school choir only had one voice – unbroken boyish treble, and if you had the nerve to start adolescing in the run-up to some concert or other big do then the choir master’s disapproval was made plain – so I had never really appreciated what it is to sing in parts. You’re much more aware of feeding in to a greater whole; you feel much more part of the organism that is the choir. Team work! And over a gap of 33 years all the old habits came flooding back – how to stand, how to hold the score, how to keep an eye on the conductor – so, no problems there. Actually, at school I would have got told off for closing my score with a satisfied snap after the final ‘Amen’, but I make allowances for myself.
And what a thing it is to sing, eh? A cunning selection of Bible verses that take you from the bright and bubbly “And the glory of the Lord” through to the lowest points of the Suffering Servant and then onwards into Heaven where everyone is praising God. For ever. And ever. And ever. Hallelujah. At the end you can almost believe that’s where you are, until you go out into the cold, dark car park and think, “okay, still a little way to yet.”
For the last two years on this weekend we’ve been to Salisbury cathedral’s candlelight Advent service to kick off the season. No candles this year, but otherwise a fully satisfactory substitute.

It’s not just about calendars

The best queue I ever stood in was for Lenin’s Tomb. It snaked around one and a half sides of the Kremlin but it kept moving. The Russians did not approve of dawdling. 40 minutes in and out to see the old wax work and then get on with our lives.

Yesterday’s queue was 45 minutes stationary in a medieval cloister, but that was expected. We were told to be an hour early for the doors opening to Salisbury cathedral’s candlelit Advent service. At T minus 45 minutes, when we got there, the queue already reached round two sides of the cloisters. Before too long we were being asked to squeeze forward as the cloisters were full and people were standing out in the rain. And they were still coming in from the rain when we finally got to go in. (Showing, I thought, a slight lack of initiative: the cloisters are quite wide enough for the queue to coil at least once.)

The people in front of us were well organised, with flasks of mulled wine and Tupperware boxes of mince pies and a large packet of Tyrells crisps. One of them came up with a throwaway line, “When I was on Ark Royal we organised our own Welsh male voice choir …” Yes, we were in line with the right sort of people.

And how worth the wait it was, even with the extra 50 mintues after we actually took our seats before the service began. I had brought a book – Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin – but thought it would be better just to sit and absorb the atmosphere.

The cathedral is plunged into darkness with just one candle lit at the west end. Light spreads throughout the cathedral – very slowly, candle by candle. (In fact we were all probably standing for about five minutes after the order of service decreed emphatically “The congregation SITS” because of course at that point in the service no one could read the order of service …) The choir comes in and splits up, going down either side of the cathedral into the darkness while the trebles throw the chorus back and forth from side to side, as if someone is playing with the balance settings.

The light stops at the transept – the east end and the altar stay in darkness. But the choir heads off into the dark, all the way to the Trinity Chapel right at the far end, their singing now slightly muffled but sending back sound signals to plumb the depths of the building. Little stars of light move around as candles are lit with tapers. The east window starts to glow. Light has reached even that far. Utterly magical.

By the end of the service there are upwards of 1000 candles all adding their little flame to the overall illumination. I wondered if the service was tailored to the burning time of a 12 inch candle, or if the candles were ordered in to suit the length of the service. Either way they got it exactly right. And then we sung the outward processional hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”, and I have never meant the words of the last verse more wholeheartedly than last night. I see why the first thing any self-respecting cult or alternative religion tries to do is knock Jesus of his throne, because it’s all about him. It was helped by a two minute bridge played on the organ before the final verse, to give the procession time to proceed, during which it got louder and louder and more and more triumphant. But even so:

Yea, amen, let all adore thee,
High on thy eternal throne. (Yea! Sing it!)
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own. (Darn tootin’! Take it! Take it!)
Alleluia, alleluia,
Thou shalt reign and thou alone. (Abso-fragging-lutely! Thou alone!)

And not a word about doom. Marvellous.

As I get older I find I require more and more aesthetic satisfaction. The world is so much more than the sun of our five senses but the fact is we have five senses and they require fulfilment. Why cheat them out of it?

My student self would barely recognise me sometimes, but that’s his loss and my gain.

Hasten, Lord, the gen’ral doom!

To St Andrews church in North Oxford last night for the Wycliffe Hall Advent Service. An interesting and pleasant time with only one severe attack of giggles narrowly avoided …

Format was a reading, and a modern chorus played by a band, and a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” bashed out on the organ on full blast to restore order. Then repeat. It was a curiously effective way of doing it that appealed to young whippersnappers and old crustaceans alike. The modern songs ranged from the mighty “In Christ Alone”, easily the best chorus to come out of the last twenty years, to something unknown, unsingable and about five minutes old but it seemed a good idea when they planned the service.

The grand finale was “Lo! he comes with clouds descending”, old style on the organ with every stop pulled out and the building vibrating. Great stuff!

But …

It began to dawn on me after a week or so of the last song that there were an awful lot of verses and we were singing them very slowly. Each verse took about a minute to wade through. I yield to few in my admiration for Charles Wesley but this was not one of his finest hours. I had an image of him sitting in his study, rocking back on two legs of his chair, maybe tapping his teeth with a pencil and trying hard to come up with inspiration. It’s a writing technique I have often used and it always shows.

The same problem seemed to occur to the band’s keyboard player. About a month into the song he sensed us flagging and started trying to accompany the organ with a few melodies here and there, but it didn’t really work. The organ was just swamping him. The rest of the band had the sense to stay out of it.

Except for the drummer. Ah, the drummer! That’s the spirit. He came crashing in round about verse 497, not just tapping out the rhythm but actively using the entire kit, every drum and cymbal and wall and radiator and anything else in striking distance, giving us rolls and fibrillating syncopation that could more than hold its own against the organ. It didn’t speed things up but it suddenly felt a lot faster. The rest of the band finally joined in too and we all joyfully went into the final straight with the church gently vibrating its way up into heaven. Fantastic!

But the giggles? Oh yes. Wesley was definitely off his meds when he wrote that last song, but here’s the verse where he was really chewing the carpet. Honestly, you try and sing this in a cheerful, upbeat manner with a straight face:

Answer thine own bride and Spirit
Hasten, Lord, the gen’ral doom!
The new heav’n and earth t’inherit
Take thy pining exiles home.
All creation x 3
Travails! Groans! And bids thee come!

Elsewhere in Oxford Maddy Prior was playing, apparently. I bet she never sings about gen’ral doom. There again, we got mulled wine and mince pies. Call it a draw.