Can you play for our ‘Messiah’? … ‘Prout or Watkins Shaw?’ No…. Handel

( As ever, this is a composite of actual events based on reality, slightly enhanced and the names are fictitious ).

A Saturday in early December. 1.55pm . Somewhere bleak.

I’ve arrived at my rehearsal destination, and park in a muddy field next to a sign saying “Car Park”, written in biro on a sheet of cardboard, attached to a broom-handle. It starts to rain, as I squelch my way to the nearby church, armed with a Watkins Shaw and a Prout edition of the “Messiah”, my organ shoes and a pencil.

This of course, is fairly standard fare for an organist, accompanying a choral society or a ‘scratch choir’, as we all gather to attempt another complete performance of this mammoth work, with an afternoon rehearsal, (including tea, biscuits and expenses).

The church and organ are this time, however, new to me. I am greeted warmly by the choir’s concert manager. (A ‘concert manager’ – now that sounds impressively efficient – things are looking good!)

“Hello, Adam”, (not such a good greeting as my name is ‘Adrian’)

“..glad you found us alright. I’m afraid the heating hasn’t been working lately, it’s a bit chilly, isn’t it?”.

“Yes” (heart sinks).

“Come and see the organ – I hope you know how to get it working, they haven’t had a regular organist here for years..”

“I can imagine….” ( as I meet the nightmare-box that I shall be spending the rest of the day and night with).

Nightmare Box

The Nightmare Box

” Blimey! ..err.. there must be some mistake – have I come to the right church? We are doing the “Messiah”?

“Yes”

“On this? – on my own – without an orchestra – just me?”

“Yes – is anything wrong?”

“No… no, not at all” (heart plummets).

” But before we start the rehearsal, I wonder if I could use the toil…”

” …try the organ? Yes, of course. Now – we’ve had to build a stage in the chancel for  the choir, so you can only get to the organ by going over this plank, and climbing over the choir stalls. You’d better get in quick, we’re starting in 2 minutes….”

The ‘stage’ is a mighty impressive collection of palletts, crates and boxes, perched onto which seem to be an odd assortment of doors, loft boards and any choir cast-offs up to the job.

As I clamber over my own assault course, I’m followed by the massed assortment of singers, who wrestle their way into their seats and gingerly balance like novice surf-boarders on a very choppy sea.

There then follows a heated discussion amongst the assembled throng, as most of them complain they can’t see the conductor, (even though they have no real intention of looking at him once the music begins anyway!).

 I focus on my own problems and look in desperation for any registrational aids, maybe a piston – even a kick-swell, but find none.

So it’s just the one manual, six stops, a candle for the light, a row of straight pieces of rotting wood which used to be pedals and a small circular convex drivers’ mirror – the sort to enable you to see a wide area. Now in certain circumstances this can be a great idea to superglue one to the organ console to enable you to see your conductor. This one is positioned to give a perfect view, not of the conductor, but of a over-magnified, bloated, freezing cold, slightly-scared organist with enormous cheeks, and bulging eyes.

Just behind my back, I am now joined by four enormous basses, who when they stand up, completely prevent me from seeing anything apart from the backs of four enormous basses.

” – AARON – CAN YOU SEE ME?”

(I assume this must be the conductor, shouting to me)

“Only if I stand up on the pedals – I can just about see your head…”

“That’ll have to do. Let’s begin with “And the Glory”…. 3 in a bar”

…and so it begins.

I realise within a bar-and-a half of the opening, that Handel’s masterfully-crafted work may well have to be hastily adapted, if I and this organ are going to survive the  next 7 hours together, with any sense of dignity.

The uplifting majesty of the opening organ passage of “And the Glory” is muted by various desperate clunkings from the organ, and a medley of notes not working, and instead offering a hiss of escaping wind where a pipe once was. The pedals which work are next to ones that stick on (‘cypher’), and can only be released by a clearly audible stamping on the pedal.

Never in my playing days has ten bars of music created such a bad impression in such a short space of time. The altos who by now should be launching into their opening salvo, are looking at each other and their music, somewhat puzzled.

The rehearsal continues, as we go through every single chorus. The enormous basses, (who I now imagine as Posh bass, Sporty bass, Scary Bass and Baby bass), seem to have been to all the rehearsals, but in shifts, and spend the rehearsal vaguely rumbling the soprano part down 2 octaves.

After an extended eternity – we finally have – THE BREAK!

My hope of finally investigating the little boys’ room is dashed by the Choir’s concert manager screaming:

“CAN YOU ALL KEEP THE NOISE DOWN DURING THE BREAK, BECAUSE THE SOLOISTS NEED TO REHEARSE WITH THE ORGANIST?”

The Spice basses have left for their tea and biscuits, and have been replaced by a quartet of smiling soloists, who all proceed to tell me the speeds for their various Arias.

The tea and biscuit break is taken up with rattling through and ‘top-and-tailing’ all the solos. Ted Drags (Bass), lives up to his name and proceeds to shake uncontrollably through “Why do the nations”. He complains about no trumpet sounding in his big show-stopper. I sympathise with him, and go into a brief dream…

Trumpet

…but am soon awakened by the imposing presence of the CONTRALTO who want to rehearse “He was despised” – every note – with the Da capo. She indicates a speed to me – I follow it – she then slows it down!

And so it continues until the chorus reappear, suitably tead and biscuited and ready for ‘Part the Third’. This I manage cross-legged and with ever-increasing tempi, until the conductor declares the rehearsal well and truly over, and I fight back the tears.

The concert manager runs over to me, and grabs my arm, in truly apologetic mood:

“I am SO sorry that we have got your name wrong during the rehearsal – I don’t know how it happened. It’s most embarrassing – please forgive us? But may I say how much we are REALLY enjoying your playing, Andrew”…

It is now 7.05pm, I excuse myself from all approaching conversations and bid a hasty retreat outside the church. There is no convenient convenience in the church –  the  nearest facility is across a couple of fields, down a path, over a sty, catch a bus… you get the picture?

Fortunately it has grown very dark outside, and in desperation I choose a basic but ancient solution, and subtly sidle my inconspicuous way towards a darkened corner of the church – behind a gravestone.

This next moment I can only describe as being on a par with the joy of being at the birth of my firstborn. Words alone cannot adequately express the feeling of relieved exhilaration.

So, imagine, if you will, the abject shock of being blinded as the church’s floodlights clicking on and cast my 60ft shadow onto the side of the church tower. Now fully illuminated as I am, in the dazzling glare of the floodlights, I swear I hear voices:

“Deirdre – isn’t that the organist over there?”

“Keep walking, Enid – just keep walking”.

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14 thoughts on “Can you play for our ‘Messiah’? … ‘Prout or Watkins Shaw?’ No…. Handel

  1. First off, this sounds more like a funny short story; if it happened……gosh! Hope you were WELL-PAID! I directed a community Messiah chorus (typically 70 minutes….from all 3 sections) for over 15 years. Typical chorus composition, 50-90 singers, many of whom with their own scores, and some who had long since memorized their own part. Even with this advantage, extensive part rehearsals were necessary, with competent pianists. We did have members of a professional orchestra for final rehearsal and performance, but the choir was always well prepared. I’m having trouble imagining a guest organist coming in at the last minute getting familiar with a (strange!) instrument during final rehearsal! Our orchestra members were 100% professionals, or we would have required at least one extra rehearsal! Can’t imagine what you’re describing!

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  2. People’s ignorance about what it takes to actually DO music like this properly is phenomenal and tremendously sad. I’m a (classical) singer, a Wagnerian, and I don’t know how many weddings (for totally random example!) I’ve arrived at with a pianist, only to find that, despite the promised “real” piano, there is a keyboard and they don’t understand my refusal to sing O mio babbino caro (already 15 pounds of shot in a 5-pound cannon) into a microphone. Or the wedding I recently did where they deliberately stuck me and the string quartet playing with me behind the groomsmen so that all view of us was fully blocked. Which was held in a carpeted basement room with low ceilings and no facilities for miles and no place to get a sip of water at any point. Just two examples of literally hundreds of stories of unprofessional treatment stemming from complete and utter ignorance of what we actually do and what’s required to make that go, and I’m sure that every single other musician I know has their own hundreds. It’s ridiculous!

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  3. Just as the calendar begins its final approach to January, you can be assured that if somehow you haven’t paid all your organist dues for 2015, you have once and for all done so, and with a credit for 2016 to boot! With knowing admiration I issue a hearty congratulations!

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  4. Thus is n oi t our st marys !!! We h ave got a new choir master .. starts after Xmas . Great news as we have managed but a bit like a ship without a rudder . Love mumxx

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