Thursday, 30 October 2008


I am not normally an aficionado of natural history programmes on the moving television screen; if one wants wildlife, one only has to spend one's life in the Church of England and for nature red in tooth and claw, an English Cathedral. No matter. I am not, in point of fact, normally a viewer of very much the telly has to offer (largely because it has so little). But one can't paper walls forever, one has to wait for paint to dry and in so doing this week I have become rather taken by this programme. This has been helped, no doubt, by watching it in conditions not unlike those endured by the presenters seated by their braziers or else being buffeted by North Sea gales. All the windows of my flat have been wide open (decorating fumes are terribly bad for singing) and thus, the heating has been turned off (I'm not paying to heat the Precentor's patio!) and the lights, too, as a money-saving measure. More of that anon. But I cannot let this week's revelations pass without drawing to your attention the small matter of the deer rut. For the programme has proved beyond reasonable doubt that success in, ahem, the small matter of what gentleman and women (or gentle deers and does) get up to in the privacy of their conjugal terrain (that is, when not under the intrusive gaze of Simon King!) is due not to the size of antler (or the size of whatever the equivalent in human terms might be) or strength and fearsomeness in battle, not even on physical appearance or prowess. No. Success 'with the ladies' is attributed to none of this. At least not among the fallow deer. No. What lady deers admire, what makes them prick up their furry little ears, what turns their delicate heads and positively gets them queueing up for the attentions of a stag is... the man's voice. Yes. The sound he makes. And the deeper, the better. Personally, I've always found it rather strange that opera composers cast the male lead as a tenor, a fact no doubt attributable to the fact that so many of them must be homosexual. Now we know, thanks to the BBC, that deeper is definitely better. And I shall now lose no time in apprising dear Felicia of the fact. In person. Toodle-pip!

Monday, 27 October 2008

The atheist omnibus

I am indebted to Mr Rob Clack, sometime tenor and fellow blogger, for apprising me of the campaign to place adverts on the side of London buses opining that there is 'probably' no God. Quite apart from the fact that the wording seems to lack a little of the certainty that is supposed to be the case in atheistic circles (Prof. Dawkins springs to mind) I am all in favour of opening the debate. I have but one observation to make, and it is this. The organisers of the campaign could havbe saved themselves an awful lot of money if they'd simply paid a visit to our cathedral. For surely, if God did exist with all the certaintly that one of simple faith demands, He would take a little more care in the choice of those appointed as His representatives on earth? Consider the Dean, for example: a great man, in so many ways; an academic, an administrator, a whizz with the cathedral accounts, always with one eye on the main financial chance. Oh yes, the Dean is a very skilled operator indeed. (In fact, I am reminded of the recently returned Business Secretary in more ways than one when considering the Head of our foundation.) But as an example of Christian charity, forgiveness, kindness, magnanimity? Well, suffice to say the latter are qualities he manages to keep well hidden. Oh, give him a fundraising campaign, and the little glint returns once more to his good eye; or offer him the chance to hob-nob with some royalty, and he is obsequiesness personified. He would not be out of place running a large financial institution. (Indeed it is doubtful if our own UK financial institutions would be in the mess they're in now if The Dean were at the helm!) No, dear reader: the atheist fraternity need look no further than our Christian community for the grain of 'doubt' their adverts seek to sow in the minds of the public. I could furnish other examples. I may do at a later date. For now, let's hope the wallah's at atheist headquarters finally see sense and put the enormous sums so far raised to better use. Like re-decorating the Can Bass flat, for example, for that is the 'joy' awaiting me this half-term holiday.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Choral Evensong

The more discerning amongst you will have noticed that the BBC's weekly broadcast of the Church of England's greatest contribution to world culture has reverted (after being 'mucked about' for years during which it appeared at one time - if at all - in the wee small hours of a Monday morning) to a weekday slot: Wednesday, at 4p.m. Of course, this cannot be other than 'good news'. For cathedral musicians, weekday evensong is the 'magnum opus' of their offering. True, Sunday morning Eucharist might liturgically be more important, but there is nothing to match the musicality of evensong nor - in my untrained opinion - the theology.

Consider the structure, dear reader: an opening plea to the Almighty to 'open Thou our lips' followed by the chanting of psalmody (a practice pre-dating Christianity) and a reading from the Old Testament of the Bible. Then, we get the news of Jesus's arrival in the form of Mary's hymn - magnificat - followed by a reading from the book inspired by His ministry, and the thanks of Simeon (set, of course, to music) for being thus enlilghtened, after which it is seemly to recite the Creed. Prayers follow, and an anthem, and the service ends in the glory of a mighty organ voluntary. It never fails to move, dear reader, even when the choir outnumbers the congregation by a ratio of two to one, or when the congregation on a winter's evening consists merely of a couple of drunkards sheltering from the elements and clanking empties every time they kneel to pray. For 'whenever two or three are gathered together...' and all that. And it is right for such a service, glorying as it does in some of the finest of this country's musical offerings, to be broadcast by the BBC, and on a weekday, too. I have no problem with that. Far from it, if I had my way I would insist that the service was once more broadcast on a Friday, too, as was the case not so very long ago.

These days, sadly, we only get one 'crack of the whip' so-to-speak. And that, as ill-fortune would decree, is on our dumb-day (our day off, in other words). So when the BBC descends with its miles of cabling and myriads of microphones (time was, you got one slung between the two sides of the choir and made the best of it) not only do we have to give up whatever ordinarily occupies our time in the middle of the week (in my case, teaching) but we have to go to the cathedral even earlier for rehearsals and for 'balance-testing' and then do the whole thing at four o'clock instead of the usual five-thirty. But worse, far worse, is the unworthy dross the DoM insists on bringing out of the music cupboard, the better to 'show off' his choir on the radio. Dear God, it is bad enough singing the stuff on the wireless, but we've already started to rehearse it and it's months before the BBC van will descend on the cathedral close. Vanitas, vanitatum (as the prophet said). Omnia vanitas.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Railway Walks

I am not, nor have I ever been, remotely interested in either railways or walking. But I am enjoying Julia Bradbury's series of railway walks. There is so little of value on the moving television screen these days, and even less for a gentleman of discerning tastes (as I like to think I have). But Julia Bradbury.... I'll tell you what, dear listeners. Forget the favourite hymns for a moment - let's do favourite TV presenters instead. Top of my list, of course, would be Valerie Singleton, closely followed by Angela Rippon. And dear, dear Julia would certainly be in the top three. I quite admired Aneka Rice, but found the confounded nonsense she presented completely unintelligible. I'd happily watch Miranda Krestovnikoff and Alice Roberts walking round the English coastline, too. But I'd have to trade them all in for an evening talking music with the delightful Sara Mohr-Pietsch. And to think she won her job in a talent contest. Honestly, it provides a whole new meaning to the word.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Favourite hymns

Be assured, dear reader, that not one note of the following will ever appear on 'Songs of Praise'. And don't get me started on the subject of Alan Jones. But for your delectation and delight, and in response to so many requests, I present my personal list of favourite hymns. Here they are:

1. Before the ending of the day (EH264: Mode viii)
I do so love the old plainchant hymns, don't you?
2. Jesu, lover of my soul (Aberystwyth)
'I always sing Aberystwyth...' And why not? What a lovely, gloomy Welsh tune.
3. For all the saints (Sine Nomine)
By the great RVW himself (though why he couldn't come up with a name, I don't know).
4. Ye holy Angels bright (EH517: Darwell's 148th)
A saucy little number; has an abundance of alternative opening lines, depending on the choirs' mood!
5. All people that on earth do dwell (Old Hundredth)
Preferably with big brass and an even bigger organ!
6. God that madest earth and heaven (East Acklam)
About the only decent thing that Francis Jackson ever wrote, if you ask me. What need of more?
7. Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer (Cwn Rhonnda)
I know it's Welsh. But...
8. The day Thou gavest (St Clement)
I can never sing this hymn without stiiffening my upper lip. It was our valediction at my dear old prep school, sadly closed now (and amid some scandal, too).
9. Christ is made the sure foundation (Westminster Abbey)
There has to be some Purcell, somewhere.
10. When in our music, God is glorified (Engelberg)
Appropriate words, don't you think? And a damned fine Stanford tune, too!

So, there you have it. Anyone care to add their own?

Sunday, 12 October 2008


Today has been declared 'Vaughan-Williams Day', commemorating fifty years since the great man's passing. We marked the occasion by doing the communion setting in G, and the lovely little motet 'O Taste and See'. Delightful pieces both (and there are more, of course). And yet, and yet... I am afraid the great man's contributions to the Anglican choral repertoire do not represent his greatest works. Which is why we also made sure there were plenty of V-W hymns from the English Hymnal. My own especial favourite (not sung out-of-season today) is Withers Rocking Hymn, a lovely Christmas piece so rarely heard today. What sayest thou, dear reader? Which hymns float your musical and spiritual boat? I feel a 'top ten' coming on...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Some poetry...

Today is, apparently, National Poetry Day (so I have gathered from another blog). Doubtless we'll have the clergy muscling in on it at evensong, so before they go and spoil it (they are such an illiterate lot!) I thought I'd offer my own choice of verse to mark the day. Here it is...

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony
Sit, Jessica: Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive...
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
Act V, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Initiation Rites

The news of unseemly shenanigans at the University of Gloucester involving unfeasible quantities of alcohol and ill-fitting NAZI uniforms reminded me of initiation ceremonies we have, from time to time, indulged in here in the cathedral choir. And while they usually involve large quantities of alcohol and strange modes of apparel, they nevertheless lack the rather sinister overtones which seem to accompany membership of so many student associations. Why, who could possibly object to having to sing the melody of the Office Hymn up the octave; or to being required to sellotape the keys of the song-school piano together (thus ensuring that the DoM's first chord resembles something from the pen Harrison Birdwhistle rather than the piece of music we are meant to be rehearsing)? Or else being made to wear one's cassock back-to-front? Nevertheless, we too seem to have been overtaken by a tide of namby-pamby, limp-wristed killjoy-ism; many fondly remembered rituals are no more. For example, we no longer climb the tower on Christmas Eve to pelt the congregation for midnight mass with figs; nor do we substitute the figure of the Christ-child in the nativity with a ferret. And oh, for the days when the assistant would improvise his voluntary on well-known TV theme-tunes! Or the choral-scholars fagging for the senior lay-vicars! No, the last remaining vestige of fun these days reside in making the newest member of choir librarian. Thankfully, my own tenure fetching and carrying for the DoM and collecting in the music was brief. I persuaded my good friend Algernon Holt to fill a temporary tenor vacancy a month after I assumed lay-vicarship, and never once, as they say, looked back. Unfortunately for Algie, it was another ten years before someone else joined. Mind you, he did do an excellent job as choir librarian.