The Messiah, Music and Metre

We can tell Christmas is hurtling ever closer by the fact that today’s broadcast of The Hallelujah Chorus was followed immediately afterwards by I Know that My Redeemer Liveth, thus tipping the musical hand, had we not already caught on, that this was The Messiah in full. We resisted the urge to protest at the radio that it had just trespassed into Easter and that technically you can no more say ‘Hallelujah’ in Advent than you can in Lent, the liturgical year being ever symmetrical. Instead we made tea and enjoyed the music.

The tea was Chocolate Orange, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a black tea with essence of orange (don’t ask; we’re afraid to) and chocolate. It’s a good combination, or at any rate, we’re less likely to grouse about it than we are about other chocolate-and-tea blends. Though the strength of this one comes largely from extracting the tea infuser after the first cup. While the orange is flavourful, the chocolate and tannins conspire to drown it. It could very quickly become the kind of tea to take paint off a car if left to steep unchecked.

The Messiah on the other hand, was top-heavy, that is, biased towards the soprano, a fact which delighted us. Modern editors being what they are, no two editions can agree on who sings what when, and often include appendices. Thus we have previously sung How Beautiful are the Feet as a chorus, and it’s a good chorus too, if overlooked. We mention it only inasmuch as the all-hands-round approach is itself highly interpretive; the vocal colour a soprano brings to And the Glory of the Lord Shone all Around Them is brighter and lighter than it is in the hands of an alto, or even a tenor. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. And this was a bright, light Messiah. More like sleigh bells, say, than trumpets, and a lovely accompaniment to tea. Perfect, as it were, for rapidly-approaching Christmas.

It turns out we’re hard-pressed to find good poetry on music. It’s a tricky subject, and since describing it well is a bit like trying to catch moonlight, we’re not sure we blame the poets of the age for the omission. Instead, here’s Thomas Hardy on dancing. Taught the fiddle as a young boy, you can practically here the triplets in this piece.

The Night of the Dance

Thomas Hardy

The cold moon hangs to the sky by its horn,
And centres its gaze on me;
The stars, like eyes in reverie,
Their westering as for a while forborne,
Quiz downward curiously.

Old Robert draws the backbrand in,
The green logs steam and spit;
The half-awakened sparrows flit
From the riddled thatch; and owls begin
To whoo from the gable-slit.

Yes; far and nigh things seem to know
Sweet scenes are impending here;
That all is prepared; that the hour is near
For welcomes, fellowships, and flow
Of sally, song, and cheer;

That spigots are pulled and viols strung;
That soon will arise the sound
Of measures trod to tunes renowned;
That She will return in Love’s low tongue
My vows as we wheel around.

For more on Hardy and music, try his Fiddler of the Reels. It’s the kind of short read that will lose you an afternoon, and the descriptions of music are radiant. Just don’t, whatever you do, read it for the characters. Never read Hardy for the characters. That way madness lies.

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White Cranberry Bark and Advent Carols

We spent this afternoon catching the last performance of The Messiah for this season’s run. It was wonderfully done, with zest and energy even in the slower pieces. The orchestra had a light touch, and the highlight of the performance for us was the choir. (No, we’re not biased at all, why would you think that?) Their diction was good, their sound bright, and they were -oh rarity -always together. In a large choir, that’s no easy feat.

As ever with The Messiah there was a fair bit of elasticity, and pieces were sung by parts we normally associate with others. On that note, we wanted to give you this communion hymn that ambushed us the other week. We never expected to like anything with a tambourine (they’re too often used to soppy effect) but the jocundity here is contagious. You may or may not recognise the text as Comfort Ye My People. We associate it with Handel’s Messiah, but that’s about all they have in common -well, that, and as it happens, we love both arrangements. We hope you will too.

 

Now, the concert over, we’re drinking a tea billed as being White Cranberry Bark. It’s herbal, pink, and tastes tart -the cranberry, presumably. You have to let this one steep. Our first effort was impatient and it tasted mostly of hot water, but about ten minutes into brewing the cranberry came through, and the white chocolate is merely a culinary afterthought. So you see, we can like a tea with chocolate in it after all. Though we still think it’s a bit odd.

And on the subject of oddities, we’re taking a risk here and giving you a poem we haven’t made up our mind about. We first heard it two or three years ago when the St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, St Andrews, premiered a carol cycle arranged by a composer we now forget -possibly John MacMillan. It was interspersed with poetry, and we found this Advent Carol in verse. See what you make of it.

The Midwife’s Carol

Michael Symmons Roberts

Deserts freeze and oceans glaze,
The polar sun turns blue,
Then on winter’s whitened page
A single star prints through.

New-made maker, helpless king,
Born to joy and suffering,
Our rescuer, our child,
Our rescuer, our child.

I haul my catch into the world,
I shake him into breath,
His cry, so clear it splits the skies,
Could wake a man from death.

He cries for milk who gave it taste,
He aches for touch of skin,
Yet he spun every human hair,
And ushered love begin.

I count his fingers, wipe

his eyes,
Then whisper in each ear.
I wrap him in my thickest shawl,
Bound tight to keep him here.

My hands have cradled many heads,
Cut countless cords and cauls,
But never held eternity
Within such fragile walls.

The maker of all worlds is made,
Infinity becalms,
From speed of light to feet of clay,
My saviour in my arms.

For our money, if you’re interested, if that italicised bit is a chorus, it’s unnecessary. Strictly speaking, its superfluous anyway, but if it’s meant to repeat, well, look for us cowering in a corner somewhere waving a cross in the general direction of all things uncomfortably sentimental. And yes, there are probably quite a few Victorian hymns that fall under that description too, we include them here. But strange italics aside, there are some lines here that give us shivers even on the nth rereading. For years people have been trying to articulate the strange duality of the infant Christ, and for us this comes as close as anything to articulating His humanity and divinity simultaneously. If nothing else, it has nerve. That’s a great thing in poetry.

What do you think? Are we too hard on the italics? Is it altogether gloopy anyway? Let us know. We’re collecting opinions.