( Once more, this is an account based on experience of dozens of ‘scratch’, local choral society and even one or two ‘authentic’ performances of the “Messiah”. All events have really happened to me – the names of the characters are cosmetically enhanced.)
You find me outside a church in early December, having completed the endless rehearsal with chorus, soloists and then chorus again. I now return into the dimly lit refrigerator of a church that is the venue for this performance.
As I queue to enter the church, I get asked for a £10 entrance fee by the churchwarden. I plead with him that I’m actually performing in 20 minutes – he looks me up and down with disbelief and a slight edge of contempt. I have not yet adorned myself in my DJ (‘Dinner Jacket’) – the extensive rehearsal did not afford me the opportunity to change out of my jeans and hoodie. So understandably, I do not present a convincing argument to a churchwarden/ bouncer, and in desperation I call upon two ladies from the choir to confirm my identity.
Unfortunately, it just happens to be Deirdre and Enid, who last saw me outside the church in a performance of a different kind, that has left poor Enid scarred for life. They both give me a look bordering on disgust, but they begrudgingly manage to convince the churchwarden that I really am the organist…. yes, honestly.
To gain entrance, I concede to buying a string of raffle tickets in the hope of winning some talcum powder, an assortment of bath salts, or a Calendar featuring pictures of assorted cute kittens.
Having got past the guard, I now have the sticky problem of
a) finding my DJ
b) finding a dignified place to change into it, and
c) avoiding being watched by the mingling audience.
None of the above are easy in a medieval English church, which does not have amongst its’ original design features a green room for artistes or indeed, any private area for organists to change in.
There is only one ‘private’ place – behind the organ – a narrow gap of 9 inches between the 16′ Bourdon and the church wall. I manage a series of manouvres and twists that elsewhere would have gained me medals in gymnastic competitions. I swap my gangster hoodie look, for that of a dishevelled, but suitably DJ-ed organist.
The choir is, once again, fighting each other to get back to their seats. I clamber over my plank and the 4 ‘Spice Basses’ to my seat at the nightmare-box.
The music desk was not really designed for holding music. It is a hopeless stick which gleefully deposits my music down on my lap with every page-turn.
It is now 7.25pm – I have to decide:
Do I spend the next 3 hours playing one of the most astounding miracles of divinely-inspired works in the whole history of mankind, with just one hand? …OR
..put the music down on the bench next to me?
(Yes, honestly, this HAS happened!)
The audience are delighted for the opportunity to warm their chilled hands, and so clap enthusiastically as the conductor makes his entrance. As I cannot see this controller of the evenings’ tempi, one of the 4 Spice basses turns round and tells me “..you’d better get going”.
So I launch into the battle, entitled ‘Part the First’ and tackle the ‘Symphony’ as best as I can, armed with a laryngial, one manual, untuned box of assorted whistles, hisses and squeaks.
But then …. everything becomes worthwhile with the opening pleadings of our tenor soloist. Just the opening phrases “Co…mfort ye Co………….mfort ye” and a warmth descends over the whole church, many of the ladies of the chorus simply melt – some of them even reconsider their marriage vows…
With “Every valley”, some of the above ladies snap back to reality as they think he now sounds a bit angry, and maybe they’re better off with their appointed spouse, after all.
“And the glory” only holds together thanks to the conductor valiantly singing the entries for every part at pitch, and pointing desperately at each section of singers at the moment at which they should be singing. They all look back at him blankly and then sing a variation of what was written. We finish with “hath spoken it”, after which he collapses into his chair.
There now follows a short medley of shakes and wobbles given by Ted Drags (Bass), in a loose rendition of “and I will shake”. The CONTRALTO then stands up and woos the audience with her comforting “But who may abide” before frightening them into submission with her portrayal of the “diviner’s fire”.
“O thou that tellest” is an organists’ nightmare at the best of times. On a two-manual, it’s just about manageable providing you are a member of a gym and are on first-name terms with the staff there. The right hand part and left hand part were not written for a freezing cold single-manualled organist, but several musicians playing comfortably. So it should be of no surprise when my digits intertwine with one another, as they seek the same adjacent notes, ending up in a knot.
The CONTRALTO and I do battle over the speed and eventually we meet up at the same place. There is a deafening rumble of scraping chairs as the chorus all rise, and the assorted Soprani of the chorus all pipe up with “O thou that tellest” closely followed by the rest of the chorus. They all then proceed to race to the end to see who wins. It is a close photo-finish between the Sopranos and Tenors, with the Contraltos a short neck behind, but unfortunately the Basses ‘did not finish’- I believe one even had to be ‘put down’.
A couple of minutes of bass wobbles later and the entire company rise for the exhilarating chorus “For unto us a Child is born”. as the 4 Spice basses rise for this, they each have the demeanour of a dog about to be bathed…
TO BE CONTINUED…..
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As an organist and a professional violinist I know this great work form ‘both sides’. String players
always imagine they have the hardest life, trying to follow a beat and hopefully finish together. We are used to having no changing facilities! A musician’s life – BRILLIANT every time!!
I am alto soloist, and have sung Messiah many times, sometimes singing ‘But who may abide’ and sometimes not. It is scored for alto, but bass often pinches it….And, did Church not have a vestry? Where did the choir robe? In all churches in which I have sung, there was always a choir vestry, and some of them had a Priest’s vestry as well…….