Tea and Whimsy

We opened the German-made calendar this morning to Sommer Darjeeling. Following the directions on the accompanying Christmas card we poured it over a sugar cube and added some milk.

N.B. We haven’t taken sugar in tea since university when we befriended Brits who only put sugar in baking. But tea traditions should be followed at all times, so we followed this one. (For best result we’ve been told to use sugar crystals but suspect those of hiding behind another Advent door. Until then we improvise.)

And okay…we cheated a little. But it was only a little! We took the merest sip of Sommer Darjeeling black just to see what it would taste of. The instructions are there for a reason. The milk gives it a creaminess it doesn’t have on its own, while the sugar helps bring some of the more subtle tea notes to the surface. It’s a bold, bracing tea and it was exactly what we needed to wake up. Darjeeling is always the queen of black teas and this is no exception.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is DavidsTea’s Organic Cinnamon Rooibos Chai. That’s a name that’s a mouthful! But it lives up to it. Because we think of rooibos as warming-up tea, we made it after walking the Dawlish Dachshunds in the ravine.

It still looks like Narnia, as you see. But at least a white Christmas is a good omen. Or, well, we guess it’s a white Advent about which the old grannies say…um…nothing, as it turns out. Ah well.

Anyway, Cinnamon Rooibos Chai is perfect warming-up tea. Rooibos naturally has a kind of inbuilt spice that would lead the proverbial grannies above to say it would stick to your ribs. It dovetails beautifully with the cinnamon for a cup that tastes a bit like mulled wine but without the alcohol or a particularly satisfying musical cadence. But it’s desserty too; you would drink this for breakfast.

Instead, if like the Dawlish Dachshunds you have vowed to stay by the fire until the sun comes back, enjoy this with a nice helping of crumble. And for everything else, there’s Sommer Darjeeling.

To tide you over until then, and in keeping with yesterday’s optimistic note, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve used a parodic bit of hymnody as a poem though, and we miss singing. Besides, this gave us the best laugh we’ve had all year. Enjoy – but don’t read it over tea!

Lessons in Tea Making

‘I drink tea and I almost like coffe,’ says Jassey Radlett in one of Don’t Tell Alfred‘s more obviously good lines, ‘aren’t I grown up, Fanny?’

We have to confess that if a love of coffee is vital to growing up, we’re doomed. We have tried it in nigh on every conceivable combination; with sugar, with milk and sugar, with milk and no sugar, plain -and we can’t drink it. If we want a drink that lingers in our nose for hours, we’ll pour a cup of lapsang. Imagine our surprise to discover the tea in this morning’s Advent door was full of coffee. Well, green tea mixed with coffee.

Remember how we said we didn’t really want Cocoa in tea? We take it back. We’d sooner cocoa than coffee. If we have to choose. It’s not that we object to dressing tea up -we are lastingly indebted to the Advent Calendar’s inventors for a green tea that tastes of apple crumble in a cup. It’s just that in spite of our best efforts to give up childish things, we do not like coffee. Not in cake, nor ice cream, and not in tea.

Happily for us, today’s tea tastes mostly of green tea. You see, there are advantages to pouring out prematurely.  If it tastes of anything untealike, it’s chocolate, and as we say, if forced to choose…At least the first cup did. The taste of coffee emerged with a vengeance to prevent our ever swallowing more than a mouthful of the second cup.

We don’t presume to tell you how to take your tea of course. We leave that to other people.

Lessons in Tea Making

Kenny Knight

When I first learnt to
Pour tea in Honicknowle

In those dark old days
Before central heating

Closed down open fireplaces
And lights went out in coal mines

And chimpanzees hadn’t yet
Made their debuts on television

And two sugars
Was the national average

And the teapot was the centre
Of the known universe

And the solar system
Wasn’t much on anyone’s mind

And the sun was this yellow
Thing that just warmed the air

And anthropology’s study
Of domestic history hadn’t

Quite reached the evolutionary
Breakthrough of the tea-bag

And the kettle was on
In the kitchen of number

Thirty two Chatsworth Gardens
Where my father after slurping

Another saucer dry would ask
In a smoke-frog voice for

Another cup of microcosm
While outside the universe blazed

Like a hundred towns
On a sky of smooth black lino

And my father with tobacco
Stained fingers would dunk biscuits

And in the process spill tiny drops
Of Ceylon and India

Playing Catch-Up, Spark, and Lyric Opera

We’re behindhand updating this week. Holidays have done terrible things to our understanding of where we are in the week. We took yesterday as Thursday, for instance, feeling sure we flew back from Chicago on Wednesday and had lost a day that way. (In fact it was Tuesday we lost.)

Confusion about days aside, it’s been a good holiday so far. Presently we are delving into Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent  and are thereby reaffirming our belief she is a writer who can do no wrong. In true Spark fashion it is proving weird and wonderful, but we love the sheer strangeness of her stories. We long ago decided their oddness was one of their most compelling qualities.

In other news, Christmas really has come early in the shape of an excursion to Chicago’s Lyric Opera to see Bel Canto, a world premier, and the ever-beloved The Merry Widow.

Bel Canto, we suspect, is the book that made us fall in love with opera. Of course we had to see it when we realised Chicago Lyric had turned it into an opera. We were longing to find out how fictional soprano Roxanne Coss’s music (she’s held in regard for her ‘Song to the Moon’) was realised. No composer would want to clutter his opera with parodies, and even if he did, who could do justice to Dvorjak? We’ve said before his music leaves us weeping, and Song to the Moon’ is the most beautiful aria in opera as far as we’re concerned. Parodying that was going to be no small feet. We went, consequently, keyed up with anticipation. Our mother had reservations, we suspect.

‘I hope it isn’t too modern,’ she said before we set out.

Was it modern, yes. Always lyrical, no.  Why would it be? The story -loosely based on a terrorist incident in Peru back in 1997 -is not a lyrical story. It’s dramatic, striking, memorable and compelling, even ugly in places. Lopéz’s music isn’t always the lyric and melodious music we associate with opera, but always it is suitable, and we could say nothing better of it. It personifies the story we loved at 15, we can ask no more.

As for the music of Roxanne Coss (here sung by Danielle de Niese), it is written for her, a gift from Lopéz, and it grows and expands in melodiousness as her character changes. It is raw in spots, achingly sweet in others, and like ‘Song to the Moon’, it leaves us wanting to weep. Stylistically, Lopéz might be different to Dvorjak but the feeling  behind the music, the colours and the feelings he evokes, recall Dvorjak to us in spades.

Now we are home, being lovingly persecuted by Dachshunds, muddling days of the week and better than that, drinking Red Rose Tea. You can’t get it in Scotland and we’ve missed it.

A Calculated Shambles

This week confirmed a pet theory of ours; namely that far from choreographed Mass, the key to succeeding at Anglo-Catholicism (or in this instance Scottish Episcopalianism) is to be jolly good at making things up as one goes along. Advent II for instance.

‘Today’s complicated, so I’ll outline what’s happening,’ said Conductor with accuracy of a service involving everything bar the kitchen sink; Introit, Asperges*, Baptism, Communion, all the key parts to the Mass –the only thing we didn’t say was the Credo, we swapped it for the Apostles’ Creed.

Anyway, he began outlining the beginning, starting with ‘we’ll sing the introit from the usual place.’

Had he never mentioned ‘introit’ we might have got it right. But he did, and in the same sentence as ‘usual.’

Our long-resident Sometimes Tenor (we’ve made him a bass at the moment so we can still call the choir SATB) heard this and once the Conductor had gone for the organ, said to us, ‘that means we’re beginning singing from the side-chapel then.’

We had doubts, but didn’t mention them, because he’s been there years longer than the measly almost-three years we’ve sung in the choir. We duly told the crucifer to stop at the side-chapel, which he did, and we waited for the organ to stop. And waited. And waited. And went on waiting, because it turns out all the Conductor meant was that we sing from the usual place –the choir stalls –and consider the Advent Prose an introit. Right. And we couldn’t tell the Sometimes Tenor ‘I told you so,’ because as it turned out, we hadn’t.

Eventually someone told Conductor he’d better stop expecting us to appear, because the crucifer had apparently taken root and anyway, we’d opened our folders and it would have looked odd to resume processing after the servers anyway. We sang the Advent Prose from the side-chapel, it was fine, the world did not end. Only we couldn’t then resume processing because of the usual preamble into worship. That was fine too, we said the General Confession jammed between the crucifer and the font, and we thought, ‘well, it will be all right, we can sing the Asperges while processing.’

What actually happened was that we landed a spontaneous solo leading into the Asperges while the other five choristers scrambled to access their copies of words and music. We don’t, you’ll gather, usually sing the Asperges, except at the Easter Vigil, and that in plainchant. Also, we did not process. The thought that we could either hadn’t struck the crucifer or he had sensible reasons for not doing so. We don’t know and can’t be sure.

That lead directly into the Kyrie –Oldroyd until we’re out of Advent –and this meant that not only us but also the Sometimes Tenor actually knew what we were doing for a wonder. We once sang Oldroyd for a whole year. We were therefore able to say as the men lead us in, ‘we can process in now, while singing the Kyrie.’

Luckily the crucifer overheard and that was more or less what happened. In case you’re curious, it’s terribly hard to reverence the altar while balancing an open music folder and trying not to trip on the acolytes.

‘Well that was a disaster,’ said the Choral Scholar to me in an undertone once we were all back in our rightful places among the choir stalls.

‘Nonsense,’ we said, ‘it was a calculated shambles.’

*In the event that you, like us, have never heard the Asperges by their proper name before now, it’s the bit about You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean. We think it has something to do with reaffirming baptismal vows. What it’s doing leading people into the Advent Sundays we couldn’t hope to tell you. But if you know, do by all means enlighten us.

On Reading Well

Today has been a very long sort of day. It began with forgetting to put the tea in the pot before the hot water (we appear at six in the morning to have harboured the delusion that we did not need tea to make tea), and went on to involve narrowly dodging a lorry as we went to work. We have made a mental note that the symbol cane ought to come to work with us; the lorry in question made no noise and was on the side we couldn’t see. We stopped purely because the cyclist (who we also couldn’t hear but could see) stopped. As the rector stressed anxiously at Mass afterwards, the first disaster was correctable, the latter was not.

That rather set the tone for the rest of the day. It ended with a carol concert in which we sang perhaps six carols but which inexplicably lasted 2 ½ hours. We blame the half hour on the interval, which was itself that long. The rest we blame on the conductor, and we like to think we have the manners not to berate the conductor –not our usual one –here. We shan’t bother you about tonight’s concert then.

But we did want to mention a rather good book we’ve stumbled across. In fact, having ended it has perhaps added to the flatness of today. Never mind that, while we were reading it, we quite literally could not put it down, and there are very few books we’ve been able to say that about. In fact, I venture I can count them on one hand beginning with Persuasion, going on to Gaudy Night. We would now add Magic Most Deadly to that list.

It’s a murder mystery, a genre in which we are thoroughly at home, but as the title suggests, with magic thrown in for good measure. We think we put off reading it because we don’t usually go in for fantasy novels, but this is a mystery first and foremost, and before even that it’s about characters. They are characters we loved at once.

We suspect this is because we find much to relate to in Maia, her self-sufficiency, the ease with which she seems to be overlooked, her ability to go on quietly doing what needs doing exactly because it needs doing. We confess, we rather envy her deadly sharp wit, and we would most certainly like to sit down and have a cup of tea with her. Would that we could.

Len, who made up the other half of this detective partnership, won us at once too; he would be at home we feel in Piccadilly, at 110A or perhaps 17 Bottle Street. There are any number of comparisons we could make of Len, and none of them would be quite fair, because he is so completely himself. But he does put us in mind of Campion and Lord Peter, and as far as we’re concerned, there is no better way to be.

As a book it sparkled. We were once told while studying crime fiction that the trick to a successful murder mystery was to try something as yet undone, usually by finding a place where no-one had written of a murder and setting one there. The combination of Golden Age style with magic can only be called a triumph. It swept over us as a warm cup of tea, a nice touch of lightness in an otherwise dreich month, and we are glad. Also, we are now rather eagerly watching for the next instalment. Maia and Len were very much alive to us –we’re not ready to give their company up just yet.


A New Created World

The heavens were telling the glory of God –or at any rate we were on Saturday, singing Hayden’s The Creation. Coming on the heels of a performance of Elgar’s mammoth work The Apostles, this really did feel heaven-sent. The music was intuitive, the quaver runs instinctive and best of all, the tessitura –that is the median range of the voice –lay comfortably for all of us.

Better than that, because the music suited the choir so well we were able to really enjoy this performance; we had fun singing it, and from talking with audience members afterwards, we’re left with the impression they had as much fun listening. There was a good deal of laughter from them anyway, and we’re taking that as a good thing.

Certainly our great discovery in the event of the performance was the realisation at the sheer amount of humour embedded in The Creation. Having never heard it sung through continuously until Saturday evening, we had failed to notice this before. The one difficulty was trying not to laugh ourselves while sitting in the balcony as we listened to the archangels (all right, the soloists then) run through what seemed a never-ending list of the animals created. Whales were a surprise, and not the only one.

All in all it was successful evening, the music growing into one great triumphal and tuneful shout to close it. As ever in the aftermath of a concert, we feel a bit bereft without our routine of Friday night rehearsals and building practice into the week. Don’t feel too badly though; we’ve an Advent Carol Service looming on Sunday with unsingable chant that needs to be taken to task, and the music for Monica’s Waltz arrived this morning. We shall certainly be grappling with that while anxiously waiting for The Trees on the Mountain to follow it. And in the New Year it’s Brahm’s Requiem, supposing we’re still here and haven’t moved on. In many ways we hope we are, and as the small issue of the language of the German Requiem is undecided, let it be known our vote is for German. We valiantly relearned The Heavens are Telling to gratify the conductor, but we don’t think we’d be able to do it again if asked to translate Wei Lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen.

We’ll be sure to let you know the outcome anyway. Meanwhile, there’s been a glut of good music this week, and we still haven’t quite come back to earth after all that time singing the world into being for an evening.

Music to Die For

We’ve been spoilt for choice when it comes to music lately. We’ve not made much mention of it here for a variety of reasons, chiefly because we’ve been travelling. We’re back from Cheshire though, and we can’t resist telling you about the latest piece of rather wonderful music to come our way.

This was a concert by the university’s symphony orchestra. We have academic family in the violins, so always make a point of going when we can, and we always enjoy ourselves. This particular concert would have drawn our attention even without the familial connection because it was a program of Dvorjak and Sibelius. Sibelius, we confess, mostly evokes dreadful memories of IB music composition with insufficient theory and a bizarre thing called Flexi-time. Dvorjak though is a composer who cannot, in our opinion, write a bad piece of music. Without exception his music leaves us wanting to weep.

When it came up in conversation then that this year’s winter concert by the orchestra was going to involve a cello concerto by Dvorjak, we were resolved to go. When latterly it came up that the violinist-and-academic-daughter (to say nothing of a good friend) was the lead violinist for the Sibelius, we had all but bought the tickets.

The music did not disappoint. The cello concerto was at once recognisable and unfamiliar. We want to say it sounded like nothing we have ever heard, but in fact there were parts that strongly evoked Rusalka for us, and an early motif that we would swear was influenced by the same music that inspired the Witches’ Ride portion of Hansel and Gretel. It was full of melodies that danced, phrases that soared, a liveliness that was infectious. It did leave us wanting to weep, but out of gratitude for the loveliness of the music, and the joyous shout it had ended on, not, as so often with Dvorjak, because of the haunting aspect of the music. No, this was an evening when we could look to the interval serenely, though we continue to hear the throb of the cello even now.

The second part of the programme was Sibelius’s first symphony. This was a completely new piece for us, and made for interesting listening. Perhaps the most striking thing about it was the fragments that grow into themes, rather than the other way round. What we were most struck by was the flutes, which sounded like the sighing of so many trees. It was all tree-like to us, this symphony. We’re not sure why, but sometimes we run away with curious thought-fancies when actively listening to music. This one was all about the language of the trees, and the violins, which held our attention throughout, were so many dancing leaves.

We should perhaps be more articulate, but we’ve thought about it and we’re really not sure how else to convey to you the enjoyment we took in the evening. We can only say that we are very glad we went, and are delighted to have taken two new pieces of music away from the experience.

Perils of Rising Higher up the Candle

Firmly I believe and truly hymns should never need rehearsing…admittedly that doesn’t scan as well as the original, and is only half true, but we stand by it. The choir is always going to rehearse the hymns, if only to knock the harmonies into place and take the corners off of their singing, but we have just spent our evening since retruning from that rehearsal ironing out hymn melodies and that shouldn’t be necessary. This is because, as you’ve likely guessed, practicing the hymn tunes isn’t a luxury the congregation have on Sunday morning.

We admit we were mostly hammering out these melodies because we were in the choir and knew we’d have to lead confidently from the stalls. The fact is though, that we remember the frustration of being musically-minded congregants and being landed with an awkward hymn. We wanted to sing it, and we wanted to get it right, because for us the music is as much a part of our worship as the Eucharist.

There’s a chance of course that the congregation will recognise these hymns, which we found unwieldy, but we’re not sure.

‘If you’re wondering,’ said our conductor this evening, ‘why so many of the hymns are unfamiliar, it’s because we’re observing the feast of Mark the Evangelist, and we’ve never done that before.’

Our conductor is well-established at church. If he is calling these hymns unfamiliar then they jolly well are as far as we’re concerned, and it’s gratifying to know that we’re all muddling along together.

As ever with these things, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation; with the advent of our new rector, we are, as the saying here goes, moving ‘higher up the candle.’ We don’t mind; we like to think we make rather good High Anglicans in the Catholic tradition, taking our queue from those women in Barbara Pym who are almost, but not quite, Catholic. It does mean though that we are unearthing from the New English Hymnal a lot of music that we’re fairly sure hasn’t seen the light of day in many, many years. It is an old joke among the congregation that you can always tell in advance the hymns you will have on Sunday by remembering the hymns sung on that Sunday the year previous. This becomes difficult when we start observing feasts we haven’t acknowledged before.

We don’t really mind; in some ways we quite like the challenge. We would, however, like the chance to apologise in advance to any singers in the congregation who find the music unusually awkward to sing. We don’t pick the hymns, we just sing them.

Thoughts on Anglican Chant

The Michaelmas term has just begun, here in Andrew Lang’s ‘auld Grey Toon’ and as ever we are seeing the recommencement of choirs across town. The St Andrews Chorus is well underway learning Hayden’s The Creation, the chapel and Compline choirs have been revitalised, and away on North Castle Street we are anxiously waiting the advent of singers, be they scholars or otherwise, to swell the ranks of our small but capable choir.

As ever, we have looked forward to these new beginnings and the new music that comes with them, and have observed with much interest the progress of the new Compline choir. Listening to them settle into the pattern of singing the evening office these last few weeks has led us to think over the difficulties, even the awkardnesses of singing Anglican Chant.

This is not because the new choir is struggling, far from it, but an erstwhile chorister at the Compline service, and still in a position to be regularly confronted with chant, we remember clearly the difficulty we faced when first confronted with that week’s chant and accordant pointing. Lest you also are unfamiliar with it, Anglican Chant was best described to me as ‘singing speech rhythms at pitch.’

It was reflecting on this idea during a lovely but protracted rendition one of the psams some weeks ago that we became able to fully articulate why psalms must be snappy, and at the root of this is the speech rhythm. We do not speak slowly, nor do we emphasise every aspect of every word, and this holds true of chant too. By very nature, Anglican Chant is repetitive, and it can be difficult to enervate the text when it is canted too slowly. And inevitably, without energy, the chant runs a risk of dragging.

There is of course an argument for the slow psalm; better-informed people than us have suggested before now that sung quickly not only does the singers’ diction suffer but the chant runs the risk of turning into something resembling a G&S patter-song. We think though that an argument could equally be made that taken to the other extreme, chant that is canted too slowly is just as distortive to diction. The psalm from some weeks ago, for instance, was not recognisable to until the middle of the third verse because the words were so drawn out.

At its best the diction should be good, pointing instinctive and the chant drive forward, at speech pulse if you like. At least we think so, what do you think?