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Wells Cathedral

Whit Sunday came to us with rays of sunshine, clear blue skies and finally a summer breeze. We celebrated the story of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the fulfilment of the Trinity through our choral evensong as the four small village churches that make up our rural benefice came together in fellowship.

Whilst getting ready for our morning Eucharist, I heard a reading of Philip Larkin’s compelling poem Church Going on BBC Radio 4.  Curious, I wondered how it might fit in with the theme of Pentecost. During the preparation for evensong, ‘someone’ forgot to supply the choristers with the Book of Common Prayer. After singing our introit, there was uneasy ‘spirit’ rustling through the quire stalls as our vicar announced which page to turn to next for the prayers. As Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had been one of my extra-curricular studies at uni 30 years ago, I quietly crept from my creaky wooden perch in the quire and attempted to walk invisibly down a side aisle beyond the prayerful towards the back of the nave, where I had earlier noticed the BCP’s were stored in a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. Our vicar had collected some extras as he went about his Eucharist round with the village churches that morning, in anticipation of an overflow crowd. (There’s always hope!)

I did not grow up with the BCP as a part of my church tradition. Although I have grown to love it, I have yet to commit it to memory as many of my fellow choristers have. Sensing a ‘spirit of unrest’ descend upon them as well, I made sure to grab an armload of these small treasures in faded blues and reds to slip to them surreptitiously and as quietly as possible when I found my way back to the quire. After I sat down and readied for the next bit of worshipful thought I had a sinking feeling the choristers around me who grew up reciting the BCP in their dreams might take offense. But I noted they all balanced the little book between pages of music and Psalter using it to guide them through the beautiful intricacies of our liturgical offering. Quiet peace was flowing through the quire once again.

Why all this fuss? Because I, a believer, hate to feel ‘cut off’ when worshipping. I need at least a few comforts of familiarity to guide me closer into God’s presence. I am already living in a land where very few of the hymns sung are those I grew up with. I am blest indeed to have the Lord introduce me to a variety of tunes and lyrics – in hymnals and Psalters – that have given Him such pleasure, honour and glory through the ages. There is a feeling of alienation when I cannot read the notes I am meant to sing or mouth the messages of lyrics I am expected to share when in fellowship with other believers. I want to know the moment I come to the altar the weave and wonders of the liturgy on offer.

Ah! So this is how a poem of Larkin’s would add to my worship thoughts. Imagine the nonbeliever or agnostic such as Larkin or some of my dearest friends, drawn into a sacred space and met with structures not familiar to their lives. As a believer I have no doubt that an agnostic’s ambivalence towards religions’ own pomposity can be stirred by a fresh breath from God. As for the indwelling and benefits of the Holy Spirit there is an air of je ne sais quoi even for the believer.

 

 

CHURCH GOING

Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round. 


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This will date me terribly, but when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I developed a really keen passion for the sounds of modal scales, and began adding folk music to my repertoire of Mozart, Schubert, and Grieg. If my memory serves me faithfully the musical source I turned to again and again was a small but thick compilation of folk tunes by Burl Ives. Because Mr Ives played the guitar, this musical morsel introduced me to the musical world of chord symbols and progressions. I fell in love with haunting and plaintive minor melodies and the ways the modal harmonies added certain colours – all great stuff for a little girl with an active imagination. I remember liking the Dorian mode so much that I thought one day, if I ever had a little baby boy, I would name him Dorian. But instead I grew up to inherit a little female puppy dog and Dorian just didn’t seem to fit.

Anyway, from these playing sessions inside my treasure book of folk music – which quickly became worn and dog-eared with use, with pages unhinged from glued binding – I learned about other composers of folk music, and learned that we Americans have been gifted with a lot of early music from the British Isles.

Some of the songs I would play over and over again, and much to the dismay of my long-suffering family who had to listen to me practice, would be those of John Jacob Niles. Black is the colour of my true love’s hair and Barb’ry Ellen must have been a couple of tunes I drove them crazy with! As an adult I still appreciate his lovely contribution to our music repertoire for hymns and Christmas carols. For his last work, he turned to the poetry of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, to give us the Niles-Merton Song Cycle.

For the Christmas season Niles’s I wonder as I wander has always been a favourite of mine when I introduce his music to some of the English choirs I’ve conducted here in the UK. Its tonal colours and poignant message never fail to transport me to another time and place. Born in 1892, by the time Niles set this work to music and lyrics in July of 1933, he had travelled the world several times and become a keen observer of the human condition. Here are his recorded notes of how this lovely creation came to be:

‘I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander”. At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, “I Wonder As I Wander” came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung.’

For this Christmas season, I’ve been asked to introduce another American Christmas carol to another English choir. As I was trolling through my choral library this summer, a hidden gem of Niles’s seemed to float to the top of my choral octavos. Soon I will begin to teach Sweet Marie and her Baby (Aeolian mode) to the kids in our Village Children’s Choir.

Hopefully these precious children will become enthralled by the magic of the modes in melody and harmony, and as touched with the message of the text as I was – all those years ago when I was close to the age they are now.

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As the sands of time that make up this shortest month of the year are about to swirl swiftly to the bottom of the hourglass, I have just a few short days left to ponder my time of preparation before meeting with some of the children in our village. I am to help them prepare for and learn the music in their Easter musical, which they will present to the community the Sunday week from Easter Sunday. We will perform it in the Old School Hall. To be followed by afternoon tea.

It will be an ecumenical effort – combining kids from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 3 who may or may not attend one of our three village churches: Anglican, Baptist, and Methodist. As a community of Believers we have joined hands, hearts, and resources, beginning this year, to meet with any children who would come for Sunday school. So it is through this format that we will be teaching and re-telling the Easter Story.

My husband and I moved from London to this village in the heart of the Shires six months ago. As most of the children will be meeting me for the first time, and will hear their first-ever American accent, I plead for prayers and forgiveness ahead of the musical task set before me. It is therefore right and proper that this week should be the advent of Lent, with Ash Wednesday in just two days. (Seems like only yesterday, in a different time and place, that I posted my thoughts about last year’s ashing.)

It is always exciting to meet with kids in a choral context for the first time. Most are about to discover the intricacies and musical idiosyncrasies of all things choral (well, in an age-appropriate manner, I hasten to add). I have directed six other children’s choral groups since living here in England, and learned that in addition to my having to translate whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth-notes, etc., into semibreves, minims, crotchets, and quavers, some children have the extra burden of trying to decipher my American vowels and consonants. Many are discovering that the ‘h’ consonant is a good thing and can keep their hands warm in a cold stone church or performance hall!

One thing I pray won’t be lost in translation: a fun time shall be had by all!

So with these things in mind, I leave you with the following …


THE YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE CHORUS

In any chorus there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part, prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. There are also various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either soloists, belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore them for now. Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality. You may ask, “Why should singing different notes make people act differently?”, and indeed this is a mysterious question which has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists, etc. However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any given piece. When they reach the high notes they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires. Then they complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior. Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins – nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same. They don’t understand why anybody would sing in that range in the first place – it’s so boring. Tenors, on the other hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it’s a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors, because all the tenors are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off. To sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth – they sing too loud, are useless to tune because they’re down in that low, low range – and there has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway.

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth – in their opinion, at least. Altos are unassuming people who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos flat. Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them – the basses just sound like a rumble anyway, and it’s the only time the altos can really be heard. Altos’ other complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.

THE TENORS are spoiled. That’s all there is to it. For one thing, there are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they’re always ready to unload a few altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few tenors are always really good – it’s one of those annoying facts of life. So it’s no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads – after all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high couldn’t possibly be a real man. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being a sadist and making them sing so high. Tenors have a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage. Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections – the sopranos because they can hit those incredibly high notes, the altos because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for, and the basses because, although they can’t sing anything above an E, they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course the tenors would rather die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains everything. They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors) despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with – most basses are tuba players at heart. Basses are the only section that can regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people, but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos – except when they have duets and the altos get the good part. As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don’t understand at all. They can’t imagine why anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end.

(Source: A Mystery to All)

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