At this time of year in England, there is something healing about walking in the woodlands. I always feel that some of the loveliest flowers of all are cow parsley and bluebells.
I am also lucky enough to be a member of Songlines, a local community choir, and as the pandemic lockdown rules have been eased, we have been singing in Foundry Wood, Leamington Spa.
There are few things more beautiful than singing in a clearing in the middle of a woodland rich with fresh spring greenery. Of course, the birds do sometimes compete with us – not to mention the sound of the trains going past on the nearby railway line! Best of all is when a friendly and curious robin redbreast alights in the middle of our circle.
Perhaps I might capture a picture of him to include in a future post!
Nothing compares to the joy of a capella harmony singing – in perfect pitch, of course, and under the tuition of an inspirational musical director… or how about four musical directors, one for each voice part?
Recently I took part in an Abba singing workshop led by the B Naturals, a fantastic A Cappella quartet.
We all gathered in a church hall in Leamington Spa and the group members, each taking on the task of training a different part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – taught us four gorgeous Abba songs: Does Your Mother Know, Eagle, Name of the Game and SOS. When you sing Abba songs you realise how complex they are, and also how discerning and often very moving the lyrics are, relating to so many different life experiences.
The four workshop leaders – Nick Petts, Guy Wilson, Dave King and Jon Conway – worked together, interweaving with each other as they taught the parts. What a joy it was, along with a great sense of accomplishment, as we mastered the rich harmonies, and sang the songs all the way through.
As a singer who belongs to two very different local choirs – a traditional choir and a community choir – I have often marvelled at the precious gift of music in our lives. The experience of singing in harmony with others is pure joy and one of the nearest things to heaven I can possibly imagine.
This high spiritual quality of music was recognised by JRR Tolkien in his book The Silmarillion. This book sets out Tolkien’s created world, which grew with him throughout his life: the ancient drama to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back. And it opens with The Music of the Ainur. He begins: There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar: and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought… propounding to them themes of music: and they sang before him, and he was glad….
Quite apart from the immense resources of classical choral music sung by traditional choirs, there is a vast repertoire of music suitable for arrangement for A Cappella Quartets and community choirs, and so many gifted composers and musicians who have created glorious music for us – the music of the Beach Boys, of Abba, of the Beatles among many, along with a wealth of songs of different types and genres from around the planet.
In the midst of a world where there is so much disharmony, tragedy and grief, let us uphold and celebrate one of the greatest and most spiritual gifts of all – joyous and uplifting music.
A few images from Dunham Massey, a National Trust property in Cheshire. These were taken on 19th February – just at that time of the year for us in England where the spring flowers are arriving, heralds of joy and new hope.
Magical in childhood, often much more of a challenge in adulthood – which of us are “Ding Dong Merrily On High”, and which of us are “Bah Humbug”?
I love many things about Christmas:
The anticipation through Advent – Advent candles
Christmas carols – many of them have the most beautiful words which I find deeply moving;
Lights – I love fairy lights, candles, Christmas grottoes outside houses
The Christmas tree with its lights and stars and shining baubles and tinsel is like a warm, friendly presence in the room. For many Christmas starts when the lights on the tree are switched on.
The story of Christ’s birth surely the most powerful among the world’s stories; full of spiritual resonance, reaching to the heart of the human condition, always relevant to our lives, especially right now, chillingly parallelled by world events today as refugee families flee tyranny and terror
The words of the prophet Isaiah, who I hold as one of the world’s greatest writers, as did Handel when he chose to set those words to music in “The Messiah“: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death and For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace and He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
Meaningful rituals and happy remembrance: mince pies, mulled wine, Christmas concerts in country churches; Christmas wreaths on doors; Ghost stories by candlelight; Decorating the Christmas tree; Inviting neighbours in for drinks
Christmas music of all types – the popular Christmas songs and the Christmas songs written for choirs by John Rutter; O Holy Night, Hope Finds a Way by Jonathan Roberts, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, O Magnum Mysterium by Marten Lauridsen, Charpentiere’s Messe de Minuit… Many composers have been inspired by the mystery of the Incarnation, to write their most sublime music.
Trips to Santa grottoes with your children, and the Special Christmas Treat – whether that be to a Winter Wonderland, or to see a special show, or a wonderful pantomime
Magical memories of when as a child I awoke on Christmas morning and was filled with wonder and awe because, magically, a favourite doll had been dressed as a fairy in a sparkling dress
Every year, building special memories for your children – the particular times when you always exchange gifts, what you always do on Christmas Eve, the moment when, for you, Christmas really begins; the photo you always take of the children with their lighted Christingles in front of the Christmas tree; the sherry, and mince pie left out for Santa on Christmas Eve together with the carrot for Rudolph
Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol. Of all his stories I believe this is the most powerful. This story of reflection, repentance and redemption never loses its impact. We have several DVDs of different dramatic version of A Christmas Carol, both live action and animated, and we watch them again and again each year.
Things I mourn for about Christmas:
the focus on excessive eating and the obsession of weight loss classes with how you will “manage” Christmas and the “damage limitation” you are going to do either before or afterwards
the burden of work and giving which falls on certain individuals – or which they choose to take upon themselves – while others seem blessed by the role of always being able to relax and receive
broken and dysfunctional relationships which are thrown into sharp relief by the false expectations thrown up by the advertising industry’s manipulation of society’s attitude to Christmas
the grief caused to people when they perceive themselves as having failed to meet others’ “expectations”
the consumer society seizing the opportunity to make as much money as possible
the pressure that is put on people in a mania to achieve “the perfect Christmas”
the way charities “use” Christmas as a time to ask for more money
The bittersweet remembrance of Christmasses past, spent with the people who have scattered – through death, divorce, marriage, moving on to create new lives of their own, moving far away.
Those were the words one soprano had written after bar 8 of the Lacrymosa in her score of Mozart’s Requiem: just so she could be sure which bits were from the hand of the master, and which from his much-less gifted composer friend Franz Sussmayr. We were singing with the choir Spires Philharmonic Chorus, who are currently rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem for a performance at Holy Trinity Church Coventry on Saturday 11 April 2015 (those readers local to Coventry please note in your diaries!)
I was tempted along to these rehearsals by Mozart himself. The lure of singing his requiem once more was too much to resist.
Mozart’s Requiem is justifiably renowned for its sublime beauty; but it also gains fame for the quirky and curious stories which surround its composition. Most of this confusion, I understand, derives from different interviews given by Mozart’s wife Constanza who made considerable efforts to mask the truth about the Requiem, in the months and years following Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. On 18 January 2015, I saw a BBC TV programme The Joy of Mozart in which the presenter Tom Service was lamenting the false image of Mozart pedalled by the commercial Mozart industry in Salzburg. One of these popular ideas is that after Mozart died, his body was callously thrown into a mass grave in the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna, and he had a “pauper’s funeral” utterly disregarding his status as one of the world’s greatest composers. Yet these facts are probably totally misinterpreted by those who misunderstand normal burial arrangements in his society at that time.
Additionally a popular idea about Mozart is that he composed his Requiem in the knowledge that he was about to die, believing it to be his own requiem. Yet it has recently been pointed out at the time Mozart would have expected to recover from his illness, finish the requiem, and write much more music besides.
At the end of The Joy of Mozart, Tom Service observed that the final word has to be with those who love his music.
As I sing this requiem I respond to it not as a musicologist – although our chorus founder and conductor ColinTouchin provided as much of that as we could have wished for – I respond to to it on a profound emotional level. The very first chord of this requiem has such a powerful effect upon me; I cannot begin to analyse it. Although as Colin Touchin told us it is thought that Mozart was the very first composer to use the key of E Flat Minor, and I do sometimes think it must be good to analyse the reasons why this music effects us so deeply, I also think the rest of us just have to accept the profound emotional impact Mozart’s music makes, and leave it at that. We are left with this, beyond all the musicology and the analysis.
We know that Mozart managed to complete only parts of the requiem before he died, and the rest was completed by Franz Sussmayr, selected for the job by Mozart’s widow Constanza, who was worried she wouldn’t get paid for the requiem if she didn’t find someone to finish it; and she chose Sussmayr only after she’d considered other candidates and rejected them. It seems a game we cannot resist, to convince ourselves that certain bits cannot possibly have been written by Sussmayr, they must have been written by Mozart. Yet the fact remains that Sussmayr, not considered by musicologists to have been a particularly outstanding composer, did indeed complete the requiem and did it so creditably that the requiem remains one of the most loved and revered pieces of choral music ever written. What a task that must have been for Sussmayr; and perhaps my best insight into his situation lies in this idea: if I imagine how I would feel if I were asked to complete an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.
I had always loved these wreaths and jumped at the chance to find out how to make one myself.
16 of us turned up in the Castle shop ready for action and a very jolly English heritage shop assistant in festive mood plied us with spicy Christmas mead samples.
Then we headed off for the Stables, which were very cold, and met our teacher, a professional florist called Zoe.
Fortified by English Heritage ginger wine we watched Zoe demonstrate and listened to her instructions, then we were off, with buckets of damp sphagnum moss, sharp and potentially lethal lengths of wires, secateurs, spruce branches and reels of wire.
What I hadn’t previously realised was how much skill, patience and dexterity is involved in making these wreaths, and that rubber gloves and protective clothing are to be recommended.
Some of us seemed to have a natural flair, others were more challenged. For me, time was fast running out as I battled in a welter of wires, spruce branches, damp moss, and blood from the cuts I had acquired trying to locate the end of the sharp wires that I had pushed through the moss in order to twist them round back into the moss and attach my “accessories” – dried orange slices, fir cones, sprigs of red berries, bunches of cinnamon sticks and seed-heads.
As I finally staggered out of Kenilworth Castle with my heavy wreath I reflected upon what joy this would give me and a sense of achievement as my family enjoyed a truly hand-made traditional Christmas wreath!