(All situations are based on real-life events, but character names are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living, dead or in-between is entirely coincidental.)
“Can’t we have some new hymns? … ones that we all know?”
“What do you mean, Mrs Forthright?”
“Well…I know we had a new one last week – but nobody knew it”
“NEW? But it was written in 1545”
“Well, I didn’t know it…”
“It is rather difficult finding new ones that people already know… but I suppose I could try tunes that are really well-known and fit old, traditional words to it, perhaps?”
“How do you mean?….”
“Well – we could do… I don’t know… maybe, off the top of my head… ‘Hark the Herald’ to the tune of ‘The Birdie Song’ ? It certainly fits, listen..
(stmarysorganist then sings to Mrs Forthright, tongue-firmly-embedded-in-cheek):
“Hark the Herald angels sing, Hark the Herald angels sing – to the new-born king NA-NA-NA-NA”
(Mrs Forthright’s glare could strip paint).
I can’t possibly go into the hymns versus choruses arguments here – it is neither a new debate, nor one which will ever have a satifactory conclusion. Each style becomes a valid form of worship in the hearts of the worshipper, however simplistic the language and the music or complex and skilfully-written the offering may be.
But, how many times have you as an organist tried “THE ALTERNATIVE TUNE?” (- and lived to tell the tale!)
I remember clearly in my younger days, one service where for “When I survey the wondrous cross”, I changed the traditional tune of “Rockingham” for “O Waly, Waly”- both very beautiful and appropriate tunes for this hymn – or so I thought! It seemed to have gone down swimmingly and passed without comment, until I finished the final voluntary, and turned round to see a deputation of two gentlemen wishing to speak to me.
I quickly realised that Mr Allin-Tweed, the first gentlemen, was not there to enquire after my well-being or to share any Sunday-morning pleasantries.
“YOUNG MAN…” he exclaimed as he drew himself to his imposing full height, (I soon realised this was not going to be a pleasant moment). “HOW DARE YOU change the tune to ‘When I survey’. Whose prepostrous idea was that?….Yours, I guess?..That hymn MUST always have the old tune…”
Then, amidst much finger-pointing and angry gesticulations he gave me several reasons why I had goofed big-time, not understanding traditions, selling-out to ‘new-fangled ideas’…etc
I gave up attempting any verbal response other than the occasional “but..”, and all eye contact with my assailant ceased – I resorted to humbly looking at my dirty scuffed organ shoes and listened to proclamations of how I would probably never work again in a church, and after that, would suffer in eternity for such a sin.
When I bravely did catch his eye again, he had a look in it that would have not looked out of place on “Crimewatch”, and so I was mentally preparing my acceptance speech for my inevitable P45. Without formalities, he marched off leaving me to contemplate a possible career change.
UNTIL…. Gentleman no 2 came over, (who had been clearly out of ear-shot of the last barrage). I steeled myself for a losing battle, but NO – he clasped both of my hands in his, and passionately exclaimed with tear-stained-eyes:
“Adrian – thank you SO MUCH for that inspired tune to ‘When I survey’…. OH! It made me consider the meaning of the words like I never have before, and opened up the true essence of the message – HOW REFRESHING! Beautiful – truly beautiful!”
A very valuable lesson to learn – how to exasperate and exhilerate at the same time!
So – how many tunes can you fit to the ‘old words’? Just take “While shepherd’s watched”, for example. There may be outrage if you strayed from the traditional ‘Winchester Old’ (written 1592), in your church, but next door they may prefer ‘Christmas’ (from ‘Siroe’ by G F Handel 1728). Or ‘Cranbrook (1805) – the legendary ‘On Ilkley moor baht ‘at’ (one of my all-time naughty favourites!).
So it comes back to YOUR decision, based on your experience, years of training, musical tastes and most importantly, your wifes list of favourites!
So – next time you are tempted to change the tune or introduce something new – tread carefully, prepare – and have the car revving up in the churchyard ready for your escape….
And remember, Mr Allin-Tweed may be watching you…!
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“Which descants are we doing this year – Ledger, Willcocks or Cleobury?”
So here we all are, one year on and wondering how best to portray the coming of our Lord and Saviour, humbling Himself to being born in a mucky stable – using our gift of music, in a carol service which should leave our congregations leaving with a newly-fired zeal and ‘on-fire’ for the Lord.
Or do we just give everybody what they expect to hear and experience, for their ‘once-a-year’ trip to the church. Another “Christmas-must-do”, to be ticked off the list along with turkey, presents, cards, a carol service, Queen’s speech…. Eastenders Christmas Omnibus Special?
After all, who is all this for? As organists we are in a position to try to satisfy all of those who enter into the church for … “The Carol Service”. But consider this – every person who comes into your church, chapel or cathedral has an idea of of what THEY expect to happen, often based on past wonderful Carol Services they have experienced!
Do we, as organists, also have a desire to recreate fantastic musical experiences that occurred years ago?
For me – my formative years were fashioned in St Peters’ Choir, Wolverhampton, and also some other life-changing experiences with the RSCM Midland Cathedral Singers and RSCM Cathedral Courses.
Here, I experienced music in worship on a spiritual and emotional level which moulded me anew and would be difficult to ever replicate. This was later honed by experiencing the Choral services of Durham Cathedral Choir, which left me in a state of permanent exhilaration for my three undergraduate years, forever ” lost in wonder, love and praise!”
I’ve also been spiritually uplifted and profoundly moved by worship bands, inspired by people just doing their very best in what they do, and been reduced to a tear-stained, quivering, blubbering wreck by one man and his guitar – yes, my friends, his name was Graham Kendrick!
So now – what is MY responsibility to those entering our church this Christmas? Do I impose on the congregation what I think they OUGHT to need to heighten their experience of Christmas? It could be to let them ‘feel-at-home’ with a selection of pop-tunes, or to raise their experience to the lofty heights of “Dieu Parmi Nous” (Messiaen).
Does it really boil down to ‘Shakin Stevens’, ‘Slade’ or ‘Bach’?
For our Carol Services, we base our music around the central readings of the Christmas story, so anyone ‘coming-in-from-the-cold’ will get the clear Gospel message of Christmas. Our choirs are rehearsing the carols which we hope will enlighten and affect our congregations, and will have also heightened our own experience of preparing for Christmas.
I shall have the privilege and pleasure of playing for several different carol services throughout the next two weeks – some, where the church will be full of parishioners no doubt visiting the church for their annual visit, and others for whom their life may be changed and will never be the same again.
So – what choice to play on Christmas Day itself? At St Mary’s, we shall all celebrate together the birth of Jesus Christ, in a service where the style of music should not, and will not matter. What does matter is that we consider what we are playing, and then to do what we do to the very best of our ability, to lead our singers and congregations closer to worshipping God.
Whether it is “Come and join the celebration”, or “Dieu Parmi Nous”, tambourine or ukulele, it simply does not matter – “Jesus Christ is born today” – now, THAT MATTERS!
To all organists who are celebrating Christmas this year, let me say “pull out the exta Great Reed” – and enjoy celebrating the birth of our Saviour!….
A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!
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( Let me take you back to the chilly, frosted atmosphere inside the ancient church, in the middle of a muddy field. It is early December, and our performance of the “Messiah”, for SATB soloists, SATBBBBBBB chorus accompanied by little old me on a single-decker bronchial squeezebox, with an ever- decreasing specification as bits drop- off or stick on. )
As the final chord of the ‘Hallelujah’ reaches its last dying twitches, the Concert Manager leaps to his feet to announce “Ladies and Gentlemen, refreshments will now be served at the back…” the remaining sopranos do not need a starting gun. They sprint away with a start that Usain Bolt would envy – nothing and nobody is going to get in the way of their desire for a cuppa.
Alas, they had been standing on one end of a section of staging, the middle of which was resting on a fulcrum, rather like a see-saw. The effect of six sopranos rapidly exiting one end en masse, only serves to catapult the tenors on the other end into the air.
For those who survive the elbow-assisted dash to the West end, the prize is a boiling hot cup of brown liquid, vaguely resembling tea, served in a flimsy plastic cup.
This type of cup has several unique design features including
- Auto-scald ( simply squeeze the sides )
- Easy-spill ( one nudge of your elbow and the contents cascade over your wrist )
- Universal finger- burner (wherever you try to hold it, the result will always be the same)!
And then there’s the Rich Tea – a biscuit of utter disappointment, well-known worldwide as delivering little to entice the taste-buds.
But right now, for an organist who has been at the rehearsal since 1.55pm – it is a prize worth fighting for. One of the 4 Spice Basses (Posh Bass), clearly thinks so as he swipes a mighty handful, leaving a forlorn pile of crumbs for me to pick through.
It is then that I spy HER, (Verity Trilling’s singing teacher) , who has a look that could even freeze my tea – and she is heading in my direction, armed with her cup of scalding tea-style drink, a biscuit in her mouth, ‘Prout’ under her arm and waving a metronome in the air, hoping to attract my attention. By now I haven’t the mental stamina to have an argument, listen to a complaint or even string two intelligible thoughts together, so I do the brave thing – look at the floor and run away.
For the remainder of the interval, she stalks me. As she heads Westwards down the South aisle, I hastily head Eastward up the North one, and vice versa. We spend the next few minutes doing circular laps of the church, ( rather like those track cyclists who hover on their bicycles at opposite sides of the track, waiting for their opponents to twitch before launching off at great speed. )
The Concert manager decides enough is enough and screams that it is now time for the raffle. Conversations continue unabated as he calls out several colours and numbers and no-one takes any notice….
“Blue 36…. no?”… “Pink 12… anyone?… Please?”
It continues like this as the choir push and shove their way back into their seats, and I tiptoe over my plank and launch over the choir stalls ready for the final part.
“Blue… 45?….someone must have it?..”
The conductor returns to his podium (an upturned beer-crate), picks up his baton, has a final check of his raffle tickets and dramatically gets the chorus to stand. He then meekly sits them down again as the Soprano’s singing teacher gives him a withering look, and we start “I know that my redeemer liveth”. (I am sure I can hear the faint ticking of a metronome in the distance?).
Part the third is a welcome sight, we are nearing home. There are some hairy moments – the chorus are caught out by the sudden change of pace and dynamics in “Since by man” – it even wakes up one of the Spice Basses (Sporty Bass) behind me, who was enjoying a quiet nap.
“The Trumpet shall sound” has no trumpet available…
..so we all use our imagination.
A couple of cuts later and we arrive at Verity’s final display. This time I definitely hear clicking, and try to decide if it’s the urn cooling down or a demand from Verity’s teacher. Against my better judgement I assume the latter and proceed with her Aria at that tempo. It quickly becomes apparent that poor Verity is not going to survive those long notes and runs without either a major accelerando or by giving her an oxygen mask. I choose the former and inwardly resolve to hide in the organ until long after the concert has finished.
The Aria seems to be a new arrangement, previously unknown to me, as it contains an obligato part for percussion – namely the folding up and putting away of trestle tables, and the squeaking of the urn trolley. Personally, I prefer the version without the added percussion, but if that’s what the public wants..
Tears of joy and exhilaration fill my eyes with the words and music of the final “Worthy is the Lamb”. The “Amen” fugue never ceases to amaze me with the depth and complexity of its superb polyphonic writing. Imagine JUST writing that in your lifetime, never mind all the rest of this great work and you’d die a happy man!
One of the Spice Basses ( Baby Bass), obviously shares my enthusiasm for it, as he leans over to his mate and whispers loudly “I like this one… it’s got good words”.
The applause at the end are generous and sympathetic and the soloists are given gifts. Marjorie was recently elected Soloists Gift Co-ordinator by the rest of the choir, but she has forgotten to co-ordinate the gifts for the soloists – the flowers and bottles of wine.
So instead, Verity is given some talcum powder, the CONTRALTO, a chocolate orange, the heart-throb tenor is handed a calendar with assorted pictures of cute kittens, and Ted Drags (Bass) is delighted by the gift of a colouring book with attached crayon set.
Each gift is tastefully adorned with a blue or pink raffle ticket.
‘Blue 36, Pink 12, Blue 45 …’
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( We return to the scene of a small, English country church in sub-zero early December, with a performance of “Messiah”, which is not intentionally billed as a ‘Come and Sing’ scratch performance, but for all intents and purposes might as well be!)
I am going into battle armed with a one-manual ‘nightmare box’ and squashed onto an organ bench next to a pile of hymn-books to my left, and my copy of the music on my right, due to a music desk that fails miserably with its sole function of being a desk for holding music.
The chorus now all rise, like a court jury, to tackle “For unto us”, the four enormous ‘Spice’ basses behind me also rise, not as confidently, but more like the accused, to accept their fate – having not attended as many rehearsals as they really should have!
I strike up optimistically with the six-bar intro and off go the twenty-or-so sopranos, “Four Runto ussa child is born..”, answerered rather feebly by the tenors, (both of them). When they get to the ‘born…………’ runs, the ladies show how it ought to be done. It is a demonstration of a confidence and agility of which they can be justifiably proud. After all, they’ve been to ALL the rehearsals and they know their stuff. But this only serves to scare the basses, who soon realise it’s their turn for public exposure, and off they go on a muddled mixture of muffled and approximate wandering groans.
A collective uncertainty spreads through the choir and their tuneful notes gradually peter out to a puzzled silence, until we all gird up our loins at full throttle for “Won-der-ful…… Coun-se-llor”. I too get rather excited at this moment, and reach out for the 4′ Principal and give it a confident tug. This particular stop-knob has never been treated like this for years, and completely breaks off in my hand, leaving me in a slight one-handed pickle.
A quick assessment of my situation (“I’ve practiced hard for this – but I’ve already upset Deirdre and Enid, the churchwarden thinks I’m a gangster and nearly called the police, we have another 250 pages to go and I have just broken their organ, …”), and decide that there is no escape, and I shall have to use the remaining stalk in my hand to bodge the 4′ Principal back in every time the music goes quiet. This is not going well..
The ‘Pifa’ (Pastoral Symphony), thankfully allows me some brief respite, as my feet get to rest for a while with a few long notes – thank you, Mr Handel.
But then, up gets Verity Trilling (Soprano), for her BIG moment. She has brought with her an enormous support team of relatives and university friends, taking up the front five rows of pews. As she rises, so too does a plethora of various iPhones, iPads and cameras, and her grandfather with an old-fashioned enormous cine camera, all of them ready to film her special moment. Her singing teacher has already lectured me intensely on the exact metronome marking for her optimum performance, where to let her breathe, and also the notes to play loudly for her. She now sits on the front row animatedly conducting, breathing every breath and singing every note with her protégé.
Verity’s performance is certainly worthy of ‘YouTube’ , but alas mine struggles somewhat, as I also start to smell burning from the back of the asthmatic windbox at my disposal. ( The poor old girl wasn’t designed for this many semiquavers in one evening, and the ‘Handel’ is pushing her to beyond her limits.)
The next selection of choruses, recitatives and arias are somewhat of a blur, as I reconsider my options regarding the burning smell. ‘Could I possibly go home during the interval?’,’Where is the fire extinguisher?’,’ Do I really need the expenses cheque?’.
The CONTRALTO performs ‘He was despised’ suitably laconically, and we all share her pain. Then she treats us to a much more exciting bit, which sounds from where I am rather like “He gave his bag to the spiders”.
After many more choruses and solos, we arrive at “Why do the nations” by Ted Drags (Bass). I’ve spent weeks at the gym in training for this and confidently set about the semiquaver pedal bit, (it’s just like running on the spot on a treadmill).
The bottom ‘C’ on the pedals has no desire to respond to my weeks of training. Instead, it decides to rest and stubbornly hold onto its note – rather like a drone on a bagpipe, throughout the entire piece.
Ted casts many desperate and threatening glares across to me as he launches into “so furiously rage together”. (I resolve to avoid Ted during the interval, to prevent my fingers getting broken). The churchwarden/bouncer unexpectedly becomes my saviour, and with no pretence of ceremony, strides over to the organ and yanks the offending pipe out of its hole and the drone stops.
The heart-throb tenor rises to do some ‘breaking’ and ‘dashing’ , but is joined in an unrehearsed and unscheduled duet by one of the over-enthusiastic chorus tenors, who confidently launches into “Let us break their bonds”, before realising that it had been cut.
During this, twelve of the sopranos disappear to the back of the church, to supervise the urn and collectively peel back the cling-film from the five plates of rich tea biscuits in time for the interval.
The ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ has the congregation rising to its feet in a welcome tradition, probably borne about by the need to allow a supply of blood to the hinder parts of His Majesty King George II, way back in 1743.
We finally clamber our way into THE INTERVAL…
Part the third – to be continued…!
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( 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 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).
” Blimey! ..err.. there must be some mistake – have I come to the right church? We are doing the “Messiah”?
“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…
…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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It’s Saturday morning, the church is free, the organ is free, and most importantly you have a spare half an hour whilst Mrs stmarysorganist takes the children into town. Just enough time to get to grips with that bit you always mess up in the G minor Fugue. (You know the bit where all fingers, thumbs, toes, ankles, legs and arms are spinning in opposite directions?) Your whole body is relying on your gluteus maximus doing a job it wasn’t designed for.
The church is however open to the public – but what could possibly go wrong?
Pom diddle-diddle-dee Pom diddle-diddle-dee doodle dum dum dum Pom diddle-diddle-dee doodle dum dum dum…
“Practicing are you?”
“Yes – are you visiting?” (said in a ‘charming-organist-of-church-not-wanting-to-offend-anyone’ kind of way).
“Yes – we’ve never been to this church before. You know, it’s so nice to come into a church and hear the organ being played. I’m Ernest Lee-Blathering and this is my wife, Constance. That piece sounds difficult – having some trouble are you?”
“Well yes. It’s Bach’s G minor Fugue – a magnificent piece, but very tricky and needs a lot of pract..”
“..Ah well, we’ve got a FANTASTIC organist at our church..”
“Oh really, and where’s that?” (feigning interest and keeping calm)
“St Bunion’s in Whiplash. We’ve got a 1850 Father Willis, untouched – 3 manual. The organist is a very young man, Peter Overly-Brill. Have you heard of him?… No?.. … Well,… now HE’s very talented. Do you know, he got his FRCO when he was just 12? Blindfolded, won all the prizes. He can play that “Staccato” piece by Vee Door from memory, with his eyes shut…. He practices all the time…. night and day….”
“Gosh – how lucky for you, and him. It is difficult finding the time to practice, This is my monthly half-hour slot. So, it’s been really interesting talking to you, and I’d love to carry on listening to you, but I really must…”
“This is a very big church – do you get many in your congregation?”
( …red rag to a bull….)
“Yes, actually we do. We have several services each Sunday and also during the week. There is an 8.30 early morning 1662 prayer-book service, and a 9.30 which is a family service, more suited to people with young children. We also have a more traditional service at 11 where our boys’ and mens’ choir…”
“…you see, at St Bunion’s they are queueing outside the church for half an hour before the services, just to hear Peter play. Do they do that here?”
” err..not every week, no. But it’s been lovely listening to you, you’ll have to excuse me – I have to do my practice. Please do come again”
Pom diddle-diddle-dee, Pom diddle-diddle-dee, doodle dum dum dum….
doodle dum dum dum
( stmarysorganist turns round, sees a vision of very elderly, excessively frail womanlyness, visibly and tearfully moved ).
“Are you alright? Can I get you a drink of water, or a chair, perhaps?”
(gasping for breath) “Can…you….play…. ‘The Old….rugged….cross?”
“err.. well I could do. Are you alright? You look a bit..”
” .. (pant)..I’ve walked….from the …station….to see this church….(gasp). I haven’t been here… since I was a girl, and my grandmother got married here, and she had ‘the Old rugged cross’ at her wedding. It is my dying wish to hear it played one… last… time…. at the place….she got married.”
“..it sounds like I’d better hurry up then…”
(stmarysorganist hastily finds ancient hymnbook, and duly obliges…)
Now, which other musical instrument can grant you the public scrutiny of your technical failings coupled with a discussion of your inadequacies, as the organ?! There you are, at peak concentration trying to master the intricacies of the ‘King of Instruments’ and also holding a conversation with a visitor, during which if you even hint at irritation, you know that a complaining email will be zinging its’ way to your Vicar before you have even had time to switch the blower off!
I remember one practice session, when I was blissfully hacking my way through Widor’s 6th, I casually looked in my mirror to see a couple of hunded oriental students who had noiselessly visited St M’s – most or whom were recording my ‘performance’ on their iPhones. So, somewhere on YouTube I’m sure there will be a hilarious video of an organist turning around and jumping three feet in the air with a startled yelp! Yes – that’s me!
At other times, my frenetic fumblings ( ie ‘practice’), have been accompanied by vacuum cleaners, several wedding rehearsals, a visit by the fire brigade, many talkative visitors and on a couple of occasions – some rather famous cathedral organists on holiday!
So – those organists who are up in the stratosphere, in a loft – I envy you! Spare a thought for those of us on ground level, It may be a hefty and dizzying climb to your eyrie, but at least you have a fighting chance of getting the G minor nailed!
Pom diddle-diddle-dee Pom diddle-diddle-dee…..
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Sunday 6.12pm – at a Parish Church near you…
” Where’s Bertie? “
” …at a sleepover, Sir..”
” Well, he never told me. What about Robert? “
” Isn’t it a bit dark for rugby? And where’s Cedric? “
” I think he’s at the orthodontist…”
“…on a Sunday?…
“What about Harry, Philip, Thomas, Edward, Alex… Andrew…
(SFX: sound of drifting tumbleweed and light wind)
“What about little Edmund?”
” Oh, he’s got a date… with his girlfriend..”
” WHAT? .. he’s way too young, he’s only seven-and-a-half “
” They’re going to McDonalds – then they’re going bowling….”
( Murmurs of jealousy from the three remaining boys ).
” OK! So we’ve got you three boys, one alto, no tenors and seventeen basses, and we’re supposed to be doing “Zadok the Priest” as the anthem. The Bishop is here, and a group from the Cathedral Organists’ annual retreat, Oh… and some RSCM conference delegates.
” And Stephen Cleobury….”
” Pardon? “
” Stephen Cleobury’s here, I’ve just seen him. He’s on his family holiday, and just popped in to have a look at the church..”
” Oh, terrific. Is it just me, or can anyone else …SEE…THE …..PROBLEM ….HERE?”
“We could do ‘Lead me, Lord?’ “
“..with seventeen basses, that would certainly give a ‘Russian’ tinge to it. “
( Shop-steward, militant bass: ) ” Why can’t we do the ‘Zadok’ – we’ve practiced it for weeks? “
( Diplomatic bass: ) “..because ‘Zadok’ has got the runs…”
“I know exactly how he feels, I’m feeling a bit queasy myself. OK – we do ‘Lead me, Lord'”.
Now, this has never happened at St Mary’s, of course, my choir would lynch me unless I said that, but how can we avoid the three-treble ‘Zadok’, or the no-alto ‘Ubi Caritas’?
Letting your rapidly aging Choir Director know of your absences prior to the event seems simple enough to your average 21st century family, an email works best for me. A telephone call would just allow the caller to hear me sobbing. But there are so many popular methods that we normally encounter.
A particular favourite of mine is being tapped on the shoulder as I’m thundering through a tricky voluntary, to receive the news from Old Boris that he can’t come to the services in three weeks time, and then describes in glorious graphic detail the operation he needs to undergo in his lower basement area, and the symptoms that led up to this.
Or how about as the Friday night practice ends?
“Thank you everyone , you’ve all worked well tonight. Especially you with your solo, Adam, it will be great on Sunday, I’m sure”.
“…Sunday, what THIS Sunday?”
“Yes, Adam, THIS Sunday.. like it says on the music list, website, choir diary.. “Hear my prayer”, the one we’ve been working at for weeks, and spent a lot of time on tonight. I even talked it over with your parents and sent them an email about it. Why can’t you come?”
” I don’t know, I think we’re…. on holiday. Dad’s got blood pressure problems.”
“I can well imagine”…
That much notice of absence can be a luxury, though, an oft repeated tradition is to have a healthy chorus for the Friday night practice, which leaves you with a sense of glorious well- being. But then, by a cruel twist of fortune, witness the rather tame procession of three who manage to make it to the Sunday service.
I must say a hearty thank you to all young Choristers who are supporting the choirs in our Churches and Cathedrals these days. There are so many alternative activities which prevent families committing to regular prioritised attendance.
May we all continue to find ever attractive ways of ensuring full or at least half full choir stalls.
Then the three treble ‘Zadok’ will be but a distant dream!
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