Advent III: Gaudete from the Choir Stalls

It was our Nine Lessons and Carols tonight, and we were an exceedingly good former chorister and resisted joining in the descants. Well, all right, we confess to fellow choristers and the body of the church et& et& to joining in on two separate lines to Hark the Herald. The thing is, we don’t know the melody to the third verse of that particular hymn. We’ve only ever sung the descant. So we were effectively sight-reading without the music this evening. And that’s a cruel thing to do to a soprano.

It’s also Gaudete Sunday, which means we can relax our Advent discipline a bit. ours, such as it is, would appear to be the blog, and to that end we’re doing something a bit different. We’re still thinking musically after the Nine Lessons, so we’re cobbling together more than the usual single anthem for you. Not to worry; not only will there not be nine of them, we promise no more earworms in the being of last night’s hornpipe.

We’ll start, because it’s Gaudete Sunday, with Hills of the North. This is far and away our favourite Advent hymn -who wouldn’t like a glad rush towards the Apocalypse? We’re being sincere there too, there are shades of Revelations about this hymn. And we’re giving it an airing because it’s woefully absent from the Anglican Hymnnal of the Church of Canada. We freely admit to grousing more than the average person about hymnals not called New English, but honestly, the selection in this one boggles us. It’s not just Hills of the North, the whole Advent section is weirdly curtailed. It doesn’t even have Lead Kindly Light. But that’s a rant for a different time. Here is Hills of the North -our version. There are two.

 

You’ll notice it’s slow enough to turn the choir blue. That’s not usual. But our only alternative was Songs of Praise not only with the wrong words but at such a clip as to be still more lunatic.  There is an average between the two -we’ve sung it -but it’s not prerecorded apparently.

To follow it, here’s one we used to air with regularity this time of year. It came with a good deal of gentle ribbing from the choir (all 5 of us) about Stainer’s lack of subtlety, but we love it anyways. Even if it does stick in our head for weeks after the fact of singing it.

 

You see what our choir meant about the subtlety? Even so, we miss it. But we won’t leave you to the endless musical loop that is that particular anthem. We’ll close with another omission from the Canadian Hymnal.

 

Nt quite Nine Lessons -more a ramble through music we miss this year. There are others too -we haven’t had any antiphonies – but these are high on our list. We’re listening to them accompanied by caramel shortbread tea. It would be heresy if it didn’t put us in mind of another thing we can’t get over here, Millionaire’s Shortbread. It’s the one aberrations to our rigid shortbread recipe we have time for. And the tea tastes the way we remember Millionaire’s Shortbread, though without the chocolate. It’s another sweet, dessert tea that doesn’t cloy, and it’s a lovely way to cap an evening of music and fellowship.

After all that, we can’t quite break with discipline after all, so here’s an irreverent thing that used to circulate through choir circles we knew whenever performances were coming due. Sing it to the tune of Immortal, Invisible and see if you ever sing the normal words again. We still have to think fractionally too long about it.

Immortal Impossible

 Immoral, impossible, God only knows
how tenors and basses, sopranos, altos
at service on Sunday are rarely the same
as those who on Thursday to choir practice came.

Unready, unable to sight-read the notes,
nor counting, nor blending, they tighten their throats.
The descant so piercing is soaring above
a melody only a mother could love.

They have a director, but no one knows why;
no one in the choir deigns to turn him an eye.
It’s clear by his flailing, he wants them to look,
but each singer stands there with nose in the book.

Despite the offences, the music rings out.
The folks in the pews are enraptured, no doubt.
Their faces are blissful, their thoughts appear deep,
but this is no wonder, for they are asleep.

*We would like to stress that whatever his sins, our conductor never flailed. Seemingly though, Thursday is the universal day for choir rehearsal. Funny the things that are unfailingly the same.

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Advent II: Roses, Skis and White Tea

We’ve said before we’ve never met a white tea we disliked. And while all rules allow of an exception, Walnut Orange Scone, today’s calendar tea, is not that aberration. It doesn’t taste of scone, but we weren’t really expecting a tea to do that. Scones are, for lack of a better word, solid-tasting. You feel the effort of eating them. Tea on the other hand, and this white tea in particular, isn’t like that. It’s delicate, and floral, and whoever thought to combine white tea with orange blossom is, in our book, akin to genius. The warmth of the walnut laced through it is a lovely touch, and gives an extra weight to the tea. The company behind the calendar errs in only one particular; they think this is a morning tea. It’s not. It’s a comforting wrap of a tea to be drunk before bed. That would henceforth be our routine, but for the fact that we don’t think you want to read everlastingly about Walnut Orange Scone white tea, though we put ever so many poems next to it.

In liturgical news, it’s Advent II, which means Mary and Joseph have joined the tabletop crib, and here and there people are beginning to attend Nine Lessons and Carols. Ours isn’t until Gaudete Sunday, but over the water in Lang’s Auld Grey Toon of St Andrews, the service has been and gone, held deliberately early so the students can catch it.

This news was passed on to us today by a friend as we chatted on Skype, and it got us thinking about our early memories of the service. We were still nominally Presbyterian then, so knew nothing of what to expect. (Theological quarry; can one be nominally Presbyterian still and be possessed of a rosary?)

We remember very little about that first Nine Lessons bar the crowd, the candlelight and Crown of Roses.  We talked last Sunday of the glad expectation of Advent: Crown of Roses is the flip side to that coin. It’s slow, solemn, and hints at the Crucifixion. It has a weight to it that explains as no priest yet successfully done for us, why Advent is so often folded into talk of the Apocalypse.

In the event that you, like us that first Nine Lessons, don’t know Crown of Roses, it’s an anthem by Tchaikovsky. Normal people hear ‘Tchaikovsky’ this time of year and think Nutcracker. We hear his name and think Crown of Roses. Practically speaking, it’s scarcely done because it calls for a divisi from the basses, and it’s a well-established truth that there are never enough men in a choir. Back in St Andrews, our three-person-choir dared not touch it because our Sometimes Tenor would have inevitably had to carry the baseline alone, and that would have been an unkindness. Speaking seriously though, and not as a tongue-in-cheek chorister, it’s a rare, rich anthem, and the world should know it better.  It’s sung here by the All Saints’ Choir of Northampton.

 

Advent though, as we’ve said, is a funny, twofold season. Solemn on the one hand, almost giddily ebullient on the other. This was best typified by the Presbyterian minister we grew up with. Faced with a near-empty church in the winter months, he didn’t wail doom and End of Days but urged everyone instead to Get off your skis and onto your knees. This in spite of the fact that no god Presbyterian is in the habit of kneeling. That’s dangerously Romish. (Cf our leap to Scottish Episcopacy by way of Marian devotion if you doubt this.) But in the spirit of his old idiom, here’s a limerick for Advent II.

Winter Weather: Drift Into Church

From The Church Year in Limericks, Christopher M. Brunelle

With skis, on foot or by sleigh,
Your arrive is welcome today,
And your timely behaviour
Improves on our Saviour:
The Christ Child is still on his way!

(N.B. In the course of annotating this poem for posting, we’ve discovered these limericks began as an effort to enliven the beginning of choir rehearsals. We’ve had our share of those, and we love this book of verse all the more for its testament to the wilful ecclesiastical humour of the choir stalls. Not to mention we feel doubly vindicated about pairing these limericks with anthems!)

Advent I: This is the Record of John

We’re into Advent proper now, and one of the things we most miss about having a choir is the Advent music. Oh, we love Christmas music as much as anyone, but we love the hopefulness of Advent, the way the atmosphere is pregnant with hope and anticipation, even more. ‘Little Lent,’ we’ve heard it called, and it is, because part of Advent is Apocalyptic. But it’s also ebullient, expectant, and whereas lent has a pall over it, Advent moves from darkness to light. It’s why we’re encouraged by today’s collect to ‘Cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’

With all that in mind, we thought this year, in the name of variety, we’d give our Advent Sundays on the blog over to posting a favourite Advent anthem, or maybe a hymn we miss. But lest you think we’re too serious about the whole thing, we’re going to include a poem with it -selections from the delightful Church Year in Limericks, a happy discovery of ours made while trying to track down another poetry anthology for work. After all, we must be able now and then to laugh at our doctrine as we would anything else, or risk the heresy of taking it all too seriously.

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With that in mind, we shan’t grouse about the fact that tonight’s tea (see above) missed the memo that rose is the colour of Advent III, not I. It’s a returning tea to the Advent selection, Strawberry Parfait, and our abiding memory of it is twofold. In the first place, it tastes of pink. In the second, we last drank it after a trying ordeal negotiating our way back from Stirling bus station.

This year it still tastes of pink, and it’s still oddly sweet in a way that recalls a jelly donut. Personally, we keep expecting Truly Scrumptious and company to waltz around the nearest corner and start singing about it. It’s that sort of sweet. Not a bad tea, exactly, but another desert tea -and, oh grievous heresy -not one you’d want to take a biscuit with.  To temper the sweetness, a little, here’s an everlasting Advent favourite of ours, written by Orlando Gibbons and sung here by the Kings College Choir, Cambridge.

 

And when you’ve revelled in the still small sanctity of that, here’s a bit of levity to close. Who knew what the church calendar was missing was limericks?

Holiday Declarations

From The Church Year in Limericks by Christopher M. Brunelle, © Morning Star Music Publishers 2017

Our cranberries used to be relish
But now it’s our church they embellish
(with popcorn and string)
To welcome the King
Who saves us from fates that are hellish.

 

Levity from the Choir

Six o’clock this evening found us drinking Sleigh Ride tea with our academic daughter on the eve of her departure as it were, and talking Christmas traditions. We have family coming soon, and that means shortbread and thumbprint cookies. It being the fourth Sunday in Advent also means that the angels get added to the Nativity unfolding on the coffee table. If that sounds illogical, it probably is. We’ve cribbed the pattern of building the scene from a former minister and have done our best to replicate it, and can’t remember what he did except that everything seemed to end up at the crib by Christmas Eve bar Christ and the Kings. But we’re mostly Anglican, and it’s a tradition, and that naturally means it’s set in stone for the next thousand years at least. On which note by the by, as the annual tradition of the candlelit service looms ever nearer, we feel the need to issue the following friendly reminder;

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The Benevolent Choirs Act, issued alongside the 1970 liturgy, means that we in the choir stalls don’t have this problem, being gifted instead with tall candles in glass casing. There is no flimsy cardboard or spindly half-spent candles; these sit stolidly on shelves that make balancing one’s music awkward. Also, because there is no Music Folders Protection Act, the folders are still prone to melt if held too close to the candles by preoccupied choristers.

We’re dwelling on candles this evening because  bizarrely it was revealed this morning that today’s Advent candle was being lit for Mary. Having never realised that the symbolism of the candles changed with the church year this was a surprise; we’ve always supposed the Gaudete Sunday candle is pink as much because it’s a Marian colour as because it’s nodding towards it’s mirror Sunday in Lent, Rose Sunday. Mind you, the calendar also says today is Laetare Sunday, so called because one sings the introit ‘Rejoice O Jerusalem,’ whereas in fact we sang the Advent Prose, which is gorgeous but sounds more like the wail of people anticipating the Apocalypse than a shout of jubilation, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Good Presbyterians of the kind we grew up with, of course, have none of these problems because good Presbyterians don’t give the days Romish names like Gaudete Sunday and they let the candles stand for nice things like peace, hope and joy. They’ve probably never heard of the Advent Prose (the ones we grew up with certainly hadn’t) either. We are not good Presbyterians. We gave up sometime after acquiring our first rosary. Great-Grandmother Grace is spinning in her grave, and the fact that we’ve since allied ourselves with the Scottish Episcopacy probably hasn’t slowed her down all that much.

We should, here, give you a Marian poem in the name of thematic relevance, but we’re afraid to look for one as the vast majority are almost certainly doomed to be soppy. Instead have  a bit of ecclesiastical levity. Mine might be spiky people who give Latinate names to Sundays and look dangerously over the precipice at Rome all too often, but we do know better than to take ourselves too seriously.

Hilarity, or Hymnody

(Unknown) -to be sung to ‘Aurelia’

Our church is mighty spikey
with smells and bells and chants,
And Palestrina masses
that vex the Protestants.
O happy ones and holy
who fall upon their knees
For solemn Benediction
And mid-week Rosaries.

Though with a scornful wonder
men see our clergy, dressed
In rich brocaded vestments
as slowly they process;
Yet saints their watch are keeping
lest souls be set alight
Not by the Holy Ghost, but
by incense taking flight.

Now we on earth have union
with Lambeth, not with Rome,
Although the wags and cynics
may question our true home;
But folk masses and bingo
can’t possibly depose
The works of Byrd and Tallis,
or Cranmer’s stately prose.

(Here shall the organist modulate)

So let the organ thunder,
sound fanfares “en chamade;”
Rejoice! For we are treading
where many saints have trod;
Let peals ring from the spire,
sing descants to high C,
Just don’t let your elation
Disrupt the liturgy.

Six Little Choristers

It’s well and truly summer here, and we can tell by the size of the choir. We’re not a large choir in term-time, but we’ve halved in size since the students went home. When we came into the choir room on Sunday, the precocious alto looked at us, did the maths and said, ‘we are officially the Trinity Choir.’

‘Yes,’ we said, ‘in every sense of the word.’

The sometimes-tenor then entered and completed our set. In light of this we’ve been driven to that poem we’ve been threatening to write for months. It comes from a place of great affection, and sympathy for diminished choirs the world over, because after all, three’s a choir -isn’t it?

Six Little Choristers

M.C.Steep

Six little choristers, sit cantores side,

One collided with the organ, leaving only five.

Five little choristers censed by the thurifer,

Asphyxiation by incense reduced them to four.

Four little choristers waiting in the vestry,

One fell out of procession and then there were three.

Three little choristers uncertain what to do,

One fled from sentimental motets then there were two

Two little choristers led Solemn Evensong,

One thought it much too catholic, and then there was one.

One gloomy chorister with conductor does conspire,

To halt music for the summer as one is not a choir.

All Glory, Laud and Honour…

We love this time of year, we really do. Starting with Palm Sunday, this is the time when our church pulls out all the stops, becomes unapolegetically over-the-top and High Church and ushers in Holy Week with open arms.

All of that began today with a service that bar none had more happening than any service we’ve attended before. In the first place there were the palms. Great life-sized ones that the choir carries in and then have to juggle alongside the hymnal as they process. It’s awkward, especially if, as today the procession goes outside and the world sends out a reminder that this is a seaside place in the shape of wildly turning hymnal pages. To be a fully-functioning chorister of a High Scottish Episcopal Church, it is necessary to have at least 5 hands. Yes, we calculated this.

We came in from processing, found somewhere to set the palms down, but only after we’d concluded the processional hymn, the ‘prophetic hymn’ (we mistakenly supposed this to be the introit prior to reading the order of service) and introit hymn. These were sung back to back. Also to be a chorister at our church, you need to be able to survive an hour and a half of near continuous singing.

We got a reprieve in the psalm and then came the dramatic canting of the Gospel. Dramatic Canting is, we’ve decided, the official term. There were soloists, we were the angry mob before Pilate, there were neumes (think of those strange square notes on that 4-line staff) and we were canting. Mind, we didn’t sound a bit like an angry mob because all of us were choristers throughly and none of us (except perhaps one of the altos) has been trained in the kind of singing that enables a high line of chant to sound brutal and visceral rather than seraphic. But the performance came off. The congregation was rapt.

This isn’t to say it all went smoothly. That never happens. Today our overworked conductor got so confused that he threw out the Sursum Corda and put the Sanctus in twice. As it happened, we appreciated the aberration because shortly before the Eucharistic liturgy began we realised no one had told us what Mass setting it was. Hint; not the one in the back of the hymnal. The sometimes-tenor dutifully fetched the music from the choir room, but only for half the choir. So we spent an anxious moment wondering if this was a setting we needed music for. Hence the gratitude for the accidental first Sanctus, which assured us we could in fact, sing off-book.

All of this is only the beginning. As of Maundy Thursday we are going to have to sing 5 services in 4 days. There will probably be more canting, there will certainly be more processions, and we guarantee that today’s extra Sanctus won’t be the only thing to go wrong. It’s going to be glorious. We love being a part of that overarching narrative that we strive to communicate in Holy Week. We know full well too, courtesy of a Presbyterian upbringing no one here would believe we’d had, that we would never get to the triumphalism of Easter were it not for the drear and gloom of Lent. We will revel then, as always, in that emotional nadir of the Tridium, it’s Good Friday Theology, and enjoy singing our way through it. We’re still too Presbyterian to look beyond that presently, but we’re too High Anglican by now not to allow ourselves to be confident of what will follow.

 

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.

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.

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?