Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Why, oh why?

I've just attended evensong. No surprises there, I know. But I've attended as a member of the public, rather than the choir; as an observer, rather than as a participant; as a member of the congregation, required merely to mutter 'amen' periodically and join in (if I so wish) with the Office Hymn and the Apostles Creed. I know, I know. I do this for a living almost every day of the year. I should be glad of an opportunity to avoid the Dean and the Precentor for a while. But, well... I had to pay a visit to the vestry, just to leave a little billet-doux in Felicia's pigeon-hole, and whilst there I happened casually to glance at this week's music-list and saw 'Beati Quorum Via' as the introit (it's a Solemn) 'Walmisley in D minor' for the mag and nunc and Elgar's 'Spirit of the Lord' as anthem - all held together with a healthy dose of Kenneth Leighton's Preces and Responses. My musical antennae started twitching; my choral curiosity was aroused; I was interested, I must admit. I did just double-check to make absolutely sure that it wasn't one of the usual inadequate parish choirs that fill in periodically. But no, it was an ensemble with a perfectly sensible name (you should see what some choirs call themselves!) which I had better, in the circumstances, keep a secret. I should have known from the first note of the Stanford what I'd let myself in for. Suffice to say the introit started (just) in the original key, before migrating through several not-so-subtle but unanimous tonal shifts and thence splitting into two completely different keys which slapped against each other like two elderly all-in wrestlers on the erstwhile Saturday afternoon tv show World of Sport. ('Sport' indeed! I ask you - that was a trade descriptions violation, if ever there was one! And as for Dickie Davies's moustache...) The wreckage that was Kenneth Leighton's angular responses was actually something of a slight improvement, but why, oh why with just a couple of under-age baritones and an adolescent tenor or two would a choirmaster want to inflict the Walmisley in D minor on even the least musical of congregations? Suffice to say that far from being magnified, the opening sounded as if it were being viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. And when they started re-composing the Elgar... well I made my excuses, as they say. Please don't get me wrong, dear reader: I am no musical snob. I am as appreciative of other people's efforts as the next man, mostly. I do not blame the singers for yesterday afternoon's debacle, at least not personally. I welcome visiting choirs in our cathedral (it gives us plenty of days off). But why oh why do the people in charge of such an undertaking have to choose such ridiculously inappropriate music? It's like asking the local school recorder group to 'have a go' at Shostakovitch. Or teaching the kindergarten 'Otce Nas' instead of Old MacDonald. It looks good on the music list. That's the trouble - it looks too good. Maybe that's the reason that they do it? But I feel let down, rather, by the whole experience. And I haven't even heard back from Felicia.


Kitty said...

Felicia won't be wanting to appear too keen - she'll keep you dangling a bit ;-)


Z said...

*memo to self* never let 'im hear me play the clarinet, much less the organ.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with an ambitious recorder group! (Says ex Year 5/6 recorder groups teacher!) Okay, there is a LOT wrong with that. I only got bullied into teaching them because no one else would, my daughter was in the group, and I offered to play too. Thank goodness that's over!

Paul (A.) said...

I'd say the Leighton would have been the most ambitious, the Elgar the least. And, true, you need a competent men's section to do the Walmisley decently. The Elgar, though, can be done with a small group: Our summer pick-up choir sang it last week on a 25-minute rehearsal creditably, and I was the only one (other than the substitute organist) who'd done it before.

Visiting choirs should learn humility prior to ambition. As should we all.

Liz Hinds said...

I cannot make up my mind if you're real or not!

Tim said...

Hey - I've been in that visiting choir (figurateively speaking) with the megolamaniac conductor!

Tim said...

And I can't bloody spell 'fugurativly'!

Working Mum said...

Now I'm sad. I love Stanford's Motets; we sang them in Chatres Cathedral on a choir tour and it was the most moving experience I've had singing. What a shame Beati Quorum Via wasn't sung well (it's not that difficult really). I agree that the music should be within the choir's ability or no-one will enjoy it, neither congregation nor choir, and surely that is the point of the music?

Anonymous said...

Having been a member of a combined choir which agreed before rehearsing there to sing in the most acoustically dead church I've ever had the misfortune to find myself in, I sympathize both with the choir and with the cringing congregation.

You were wise to leave; I wish we could have.

Your post also made me wonder if there is a book-length biography of Thomas Attwood Walmisley. From what little I can find online, he seems very interesting in all the best ways.

Am enjoying your blog very much.

Can Bass 1 said...

What ho, everybody!

I fear you may be right in your appraisal of the situation, Kitty. But, dammit, I think I love the woman!

A multi-instrumentalist, Z - that's very impressive.

I'm afraid I have rather painful memories of the recorder, Penelope. The least said about all that, the better.

You are indeed correct, Paul, about the Elgar. The problem clearly arose due to a lack of rehearsal (having spent, no doubt, an inordinate amount of time on the other pieces).

I'm not sure what you mean, Liz! The pain I feel is real, I can assure you.

I see from your profile that you are a soon-to-be ex-teacher, Mr Dotterel. Perhaps it's for the best.

Oh, working, singing mum, how right you are about the Stanford. We once sang at Chartres Cathedral, too (although several of the choristers were sick, so I'm not sure we covered ourselves in glory - they certainly covered themselves in vomit, though!

Ah, the acoustics, Skygge. We have the opposite problem here - an enormous echo, which provides its own particular challenge to visiting choirs.

Anyone need a soloist?

Joanna Cake said...

Sacrilege! Slagging off the venerable Dickie Davies and the wrestling extravaganza that used to be Saturday afternoon! ;P

George Tarasuk said...

My predecessor was famous for forcing innappropriate music on the choir. By the time I came in, I had a choir of six. Now, back up to 15, I see no purpose in forcing amateur singers to sing music meant for trained professionals.

More importantly, who is this cake lady? I'd like a piece of that!

Lavinia said...

You know, I felt almost the same way yesterday when I bought a piece of black forest cake. When I sat down to eat it, I discovered to my absolute horror that there were strawberries in it, instead of cherries. I was enraged.

Can Bass 1 said...

'Better to do something well than something better' as I always tell them DoM (especially when he insists on introducing things by Janacek or that Belgian stinker Flor Peeters. (Actually, I do admire his organ pieces!)
Actually, I rather enjoyed the Saturday afternoon grappling that passed itself off as sport, Ms Cake. But not Mr Davies's moustache, I'm afraid. You were right to be enraged, Ms Ladyslipper.

Rob Clack said...

Ah, now I wonder which cathedral you inhabit. The freelance choir I sing in is doing a week in Winchester in a bit, and really looking forward to it. We were there in 2005, so presumably weren't quite as bad as the ones you're reporting on.

Yes, of course we sing the Leighton, Stamford, Walmisley. Personal faves are Weelkes, Tompkins, Gibbons, Purcell, and at the other end of the scale, Clucas, Joubert, Poulenc. I'm a rather feeble second tenor, and there usually aren't enough of us to sensibly do Dec and Can often.