Singing the Lord’s song… in a strange land.

It has always been one of the most exciting and interesting parts of being an organist to discover new organs in buildings hitherto unknown to me. I’ve enjoyed the enviable privilege of having played some incredible instruments in some awe-inspiring venues.

Also, it is good to experience different forms of worship, where there may be things you recognise, but at other times you are dramatically shoved out of your comfort zone and you have to fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants!

With St Mary’s Choir, I have experienced many life-changing experiences, retold in previous and possibly future tales on this blogsite.

Recently, we had a superb tour of Belgium and France and this thrust me into another experience where my rather poor language skills and an ‘Act of God’ conspired against me – once again!

We were due to take part in a Mass at a Catholic Church. I did my studying beforehand and thought that I would be OK. Musically, there was no real problem – the choir had learnt the usual Mass setting and, after all, it couldn’t be THAT different from our usual Communion Service, could it?

The Organ, it has to be said, was magnificent. Positioned high in the Nave, with a position that was to DIE for – the only trouble was, access to it could easily arrange that event.

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L’Eglise Saint Pierre à Caen

We reached the instrument by climbing a never-ending spiral staircase, and then via a little door taking us outside onto the roof of the Nave, and then an undignified clamber back into the triforium and along an extremely narrow passage.

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It was then that I met the Organist, and thanks to the valiant translations of our Organ Scholar, we found out that the PA system had been struck by lightning the previous night, and our only link with the service that was taking place 100 metres below, and was about to start, would be filtered through him!

It was at this point I realised that my rather poor pigeon-French was not going to help too much, as I strained to hear the announcements.

From a considerable echoey distance, it sounded to me something like this:

Bonjour Mesdames et messieurs, et le petit boulangerie….avec le stylo est dans le pupitre, parce que le voiture est sur le plage. C’est comme si les droits de la personne ne faisaient pas partie de leur écran radar….. C’est comme si les animaux demandaient la température qu’ils aimeraient avoir. …..Aujourd’hui, nous accueillons Le Chœur de l’église St Marys, Bury St Edmunds avec le chef de choeur Peter Tryon…..ET L’ORGANISTE ADRIAN MARPLE…”

..AT LAST, some words I recognised… but that was about it for the next hour-or-so!

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At various times during the service, I launched with trepidation into what I thought was the right piece to play at the right time. As we could not hear the choir from this elevated position, (without the thunder-struck PA system), my success or failure was judged by looking at the face of the Organist, who at one stage grabbed my hand off the keyboards as I was about to launch into a rather timid ‘Sanctus’!

At one time, I looked up to see him with his face in his hands, and I’m sure I heard a French whimpering sound, followed by a Gallic shrug.

Later in the Service, he kindly, but firmly entreated me to vacate the stool (ie shoved me off), as he gave an inspired improvisation at the moment of the ‘élévation’– something which I had read about, but never experienced.

 Later, during what I gather was the Sermon/ Homily / Exposant / Oration, or it could have been the weekly notices or football scores,  as far as I knew, we swapped stories in a whisper, about Anglo-Franco organs we had played and I found out that he had been taught by none other than Maurice Duruflé himself!

As the Mass drew to a close, I felt that maybe Anglo-Franco and Protestant-Catholic bridges had been built until a slightly horrified look came on this Organists’ brow – I was going to play a PREPARED voluntary and not an IMPROVISATION!

So Prelude & Fugue in A minor by J S Bach (BWV 543) got an airing instead! The choir processed out, the congregation left very swiftly, but I had a great time, until it was time to descend (via the roof), from my eyrie and rejoin my fellow tourists before finding our coach and heading back to the hotel.

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It was then, and only then, that I realised that I had completely played the wrong communion motet!

The loneliness of the long-distance Organist….!

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And tonight’s Psalm will be.. Maggie’s Den.. number TEN!

( Another story, based on real experiences – Warning: it may contain many additives to preserve the quality for your enjoyment) ie it’s somewhat exagerrated – but could happen..!

Think of the words “Choral Evensong” and a clear picture is built in your mind’s eye. A summer’s evening in a cathedral quire, the choir chanting impeccably  in beatifully starched robes, the organ’s ethereal sounds wafting down from on high – effortless, serene, beautiful and dignified.

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St Mary’s West Window

Most of us have had experiences of that sublime act of worship, many of us have the privelige of trying to achieve it regularly in our churches, chapels and cathedrals, holding on to the value that it has as part of our rich cultural heritage.

I have had many wonderful times taking a choir to sing Choral Evensong in a place that has never experienced one before. Often the church weren’t quite sure what to expect, but were alyays really grateful!

In my student days, I travelled with a choir to an extremely remote church, which was a fair distance from any recognisable town, village, hamlet or even a house. On arrival, I was not surprised that the church had not had a choir for centuries, and it was a feat that they had managed any worshippers or indeed visitors at all!

The vicar welcomed me and our singers like long-lost friends. He was a powerhouse of energy, and full of genuine, trembling excitement at the prospect of a visiting choir.

“Oh WOW! This is soooooo fantastic, that you’ve come here tonight. We’ve been looking forward to this for months. The ladies from the surrounding villages have prepared a spread for you and the choir. We’ve hired in some ‘portaloos’, the Army Cadets are supervising the car-parking, the St John’s Ambulance aren’t here yet. But the PA system is all set up.. Do you want to do the press conference now or afterwards..”

Yes, I’m sorry, I made that last bit up, but this vicar was really determined to enjoy tonight’s show!

He was sporting a delightful combination of a white frilly dress-shirt, huge bow-tie and white- jacket that cried out “Bingo-caller”. His introduction to the service, use of microphone and tone of voice, also called out “Bingo-caller”!

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Here’s how it went:

Organ plays: “Rhosymedre” – (or at least, a version of it without pedals, as befitted the one manual nightmare box described in previous blogs).

SFX Microphone Click

Vicar: ” Wellllll – GOOD EVENING, LADIES ANNNND…….GENTLEMEN “

Congregation all respond “GOOD EVENING, VICAR”

“And have we got a real show for you tonight, Ladies and gentlemen? Yes, sirrreee, we sure have, all the way from ‘up North’ in Durham…. Pink Panther land…Durr-um, Durr-um, Durr-um,Durr-um,Durr-um…” Gedditt?”

SFX Drum Kit: Boom-tish!!

Congregation respond “GROAN”

“Anyway – on with the show. Please give a lovely warm welcome to none other than the choir of… wait for it, wait for it…. HATFIELD COLLEGE”

Congregation respond with over-enthusiastic cheers, wolf-whistles, and tear-stained faces.

( I swear I see one lady carried out by the St Johns’ Ambulancemen…)

” And on the organ for you tonight, their organ scholar, please raise the roof –

HEEEEERE’S… Adrian Marple…”

(Amidst equally excited noises, from behind an old curtain comes a rather embarassed, apprehensive organ scholar, not used to facing an audience, about to be interviewed by Mr Showbiz himself..

” So, tell us a bit about yourself – what’s your name and where d’you come from?”
“Hello everyone, my name’s Adrian and I’m from Durham..”

Congregation: “Oooooooh!”

“So tell, me, now – Organs… are all organs the same, or are some different?”

” err, well… I suppose.. actually…”

” enough of that – what we all want to know is – have you got a girlfriend?”

“WHAT? err…No, not at the moment..”

” There you go, Brenda – you may be in luck tonight..!”

Congregation: Cheers all round, ( and a slightly dirty laugh from one or two ladies..)

” So, anyway. Back you go to the organ, Adrian and get yourself comfortable – Give him a big hand, ladies and gentlemen…. We have a lovely little service for you tonight, folks – a CHORDAL EVENSONG with tunes by Ayleward The canticles are going to be sung by Brewer in D…”

Congregation: “Oooh!”

“..and someone called John is going to sing that beautiful hit-song from Ireland “Greater Love” – I love that one, don’t you?”

Congregation: “Oooh Yes!”

Bingo caller

“Tonight’s Psalm will be that old favourite… Maggies’ Den, number TEN!

And the hymns will be… ( let’s have a bit of hush now, eyes down everybody, .. the best of order…..here it comes… TWO and EIGHT, twenty-eight. ….AND…..TWO little ducks…”

Congregation:”Quack, quack!”

“twenty-two… Followed by…….Clickety Click, Sixty-six….and the last one, a bit of hush everyone – this could make someone’s night….two fat ladies – eighty-eight”

Churchwarden:”HOUSE..!”

“OK, we’ll get someone over to check your ticket, Hilda. In the meantime – let’s start tonight’s show with some responses sung by our lovely visitors, ladies and gentlemen, with a solo – making his debut for you HERE TONIGHT – please will you welcome, Hatfield College and their soloist – MISTER PREE…..SENTER”

Congregation: (Wild cheers..)

PREE SENTER: “O Lord open thou our lips..”

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Rupert would love to sing in your church choir…… but we can’t do Sundays

( All conversations and illustrations are, as ever, based on the sad truth but are somewhat exagerrated in order to help my therapy! )

SFX – Phone rings

‘stmarysorganist’ wrestles the ‘phone out of the hands of ‘stmarysorganist-five-year-old-boy’ (who has already answered and told the caller that “Daddy is on the toilet…”) and I attempt a professional answer…

“Hello, Good evening – how may I help you?”

“My boy, Rupert has come home from school today saying he would love to join your church choir”

“Oh that is GREAT news, you see we’ve been doing a large recruiting campaign throughout all the local schools and..”

“..the trouble is – we can’t do Sundays”

“Oh, I see”

” Rupert does scuba-diving every 3rd Sunday of the month, and on the others he alternates between yachting and kick-boxing. But he’s really keen on the idea of being in the choir – you couldn’t change the day for him, could you?”

“Not really, you see – being a church choir we have a tendency to sing on the Sabbath”

” Only Rupert’s friend, Fergus goes to the “Stars-in-the-making” Stage Academy, and they do Saturdays, which would suit us better…”

“I’m afraid we really can’t change the Service times to a Saturday – there are profound reasons why not – it’s not something that I could possibly change without a fundamental shift in the entire liturgical doctrines of the Church of England – it’s more than my job’s worth…”

SFX – Phone dialling tone…

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St Mary’s Choir in 1906 – with 26 boy choristers…

So HOW in this age of children having at least 12 different ‘extra-curricular’ hobbies, can we hope to continue with the glorious tradition of the English Church Choir?

It doesn’t seem that long ago since I first visited St Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton – and from that moment my life took a massive detour! I guess it doesn’t matter that the reason I went, was that my elder sister fancied one of the boys in the choir, but from the moment I saw the choir process in – I knew I was HOOKED!

So, amidst much sisterly pleadings to my slightly reluctant parents – I was allowed to join (aged 7), provided my sister was there to look after me! It was a win-win situation for us both!

Yes, times have radically changed – the only legitimate nocturnal activity for boys of my age in Wolverhampton at that time was the Cubs, the Sea Scouts, Football, mugging – or the Church Choir.

St Peters

St Peter’s Choir, Wolverhampton (early 1970’s) – there is a prize for spotting ‘stmarysorganist’…

It was with this bunch of people that my musical future was begun!

So with these legions of boy choristers evident in 1970 – how do we convince the youngsters of 2016 that the Church choir is for them, both now and in the future?

Many potential recruits (as highlighted by young Rupert, above), have incredibly diverse and valid interests. Many of them are communal and involve regular committment, so I am not harping on about ‘computer games’!

Parents now are expected to shunt their children to stage school, football, rugby, martial arts, model airplanes, swimming, scuba diving, stage choirs, dancing, orchestras, bands, cubs, guides, beavers, brownies, scouts, air cadets, sea scouts, army cadets, girl guides … need I go on?

We have a very proud history of maintaining a boys’ and gentlemens’ choir at St Mary’s, with claims going back as early as the 15th century. We have started a girls’ choir too – but that is not enough for a 21st century child.

Our main recruitment drive has been through school visits, where 2 of our gentlemen basses (retired teachers), have developed a ‘roadshow’ to introduce our boys & girls choirs to the local schools.

It is difficult, though, to convey the enormous benefit of regular choral singing to a 7-year-old, so we are also looking at new ways of speaking purely to the parents, and highlighting the educational benefits of regular group music-making that is being starved in so many of our schools.

So – here is my plan for a successful recruiting campaign to attract children to sing in our church choirs…(!)

  1. We have ‘flexi-time’ services, not necessarily on a Sunday – as that is too restricting for a ‘modern family’, (you might need to check this with your Vicar, Bishop or ArchBishop first).
  2. The Choir Director absails into church before the introit.
  3. The organist regularly plays a ‘mash-up’ of pop tunes to keep the ‘yougsters’ interested.
  4. We serve McD’s and ‘Red Bull’ during services and practices.
  5. We offer GCSE coursework-help.
  6. The anthem is occasionally a scriptural verse set to a well-known ‘Adele’ song.
  7. Regular scuba-diving classes (should be popular with Baptists?)
  8. Regular ‘mash-ups’ of Stanford with ‘One Direction’.
  9. New Choir robes – maybe in glittery lycra?

In the meantime though, let us rejoice in the Cathedral, College and Church choirs that we do have.

We are all having the same difficulties with sustaining our rich choral heritage – but if one reader can present me with a boy or girl for one of our choirs at St Mary’s – you can claim a prize from me….

… a signed picture of St Peter’s Choir Wolverhampton…(from the 1970’s)!!

 

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