The Trees on the Mountain are Accented?

Do we need to add accents to music? We ask because some years back we were introduced to the strange and weird world of Albert Herring. We didn’t think much about the accent question at the time; we were in Scotland and all the singers sounded British, inasmuch as singing is ever accented.

But then we were introduced to what must be one of our favourite pieces of music in all opera, The Trees on the Mountain. It comes from Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah, and while it’s based on the apocryphal book of the same name, Floyd relocates the action to the heart of Southern America. It’s not nearly well-known enough elsewhere, though it put Floyd on the musical map. This means there are precious few recordings of it that we can find – and the ones we can are full of the South. Not surprising, if, as with our Albert Herring the cast was Southern, but the singers of Floyd aren’t. Yet, every one of them feels the need to adopt the soft-spoken Southern accent as they negotiate the music, and every time we here the dialectised words, we’re pulled out of the music for a second.

You have to understand; it’s not written that way. Oh, there’s the odd bit of dialectic phrasing, take ‘The sky’s so bright and velvet-like,’ for instance. But relaxed vowels are all interpretive -not written into the text. That’s not to say, of course, that it can’t be done – otherwise cry heresy to every rescoring of Bach and Rameau through history. We’ve been putting our stamp on music forever, adding dynamics were there were none, taking them out where an editor we disagree with wrote them in, ornamenting and decorating and offering suggestions for grace notes. But accents? Even ones not ours?

It’s an odd thing. Undeniably a large part of Susannah’s musical identity is its Southernness. But when we sing Trees on the Mountain, or even its companion, Ain’t it a Pretty Night  – and we have – we find it distinctly unnatural to assume an accent that isn’t our funny hybrid of Canadian-British-Scots-whatever-people-guess-at-the-moment. The fact is when we sing we sound neutral, and turning ‘my’ into ‘ma’ makes harder already challenging intervals. It also makes us sound and feel absurd, since we still sound Canadian-Scots-British-et&. Would it be different if that was our natural speech pattern? Very possibly.

And then there’s the music. We’ve already said this is an opera steeped in the South. Floyd wrote the culture into the music. However you sing the words, there is no getting around the lilting lyricism of this opera with its roots in folk revival. It’s the music of a people turned grand opera. It isn’t easy music, but it is music with the kind of fluid tessitura that allows it to sit comfortably in any voice.

Albert Herring isn’t quite the same. It’s brittle and spiky, even chaotic. It doesn’t sound of England in quite the way Susannah sounds musically southern. Except that it does. It’s not Elgar, but it’s clipped and precise in a cut-glass way that is beautifully evocative of the posh, stratified society the eponymous Herring wants to throw off. As he tries to eschew it the music grows wild and chromatic. So not only does it sound of a place, it sounds of the particular social sphere being depicted. Does it need the cut-glass accents singers often bring to it? Does Trees on the Mountain need its dialectic stresses? For our money this is a case of music first, then words. Place, history, class: it’s all there; one only needs to listen.

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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.

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.

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!)

A Round Reel of Poetry: Tea for Accompaniment

It’s elegance meets….well the slightly less elegant tonight, as you’re getting tea and a verse with a dose of tartan. Though next to the ceilidhs we learned on, Scottish Country is the elegant cousin, so it’s not too amiss. Mondays are our dancing evening, and we’re strongly tempted to land you with Mairi’s Wedding, because we’ve not done that one yet here, and it would fit the pattern of our day. You’re not getting it, because it drives us fairly batty, even sung.

Besides, we’re sipping Silver Dragon Pearls tonight, and really, there are limits. Sometimes this Advent Calendar comes through in high style, and a tea this delicate, floral -and yes, high-grade -really deserves dignified accompaniment. Alas, we never claimed to be dignified. And since we’re still thinking in reels and jigs, you’re getting a wee verse about Scottish Country Dancing, no names given. Trust us; it’s much funnier this way.

Black_Watch_-_Campbell_tartan

A New Dance

Part Batt

Guess who’s written a brand new dance,
With a brand new figure in it,
Not easy to learn – but worth a try,
As you’ll hear, if you give me a minute.

It is, of course, a “meanwhile” dance
And sounds, perhaps, complex,
But it’s quite straightforward as long as you know
Your number, your partner, and sex.

Threes and fours on the opposite side –
You’ll find it better that way.
You’ve curtsied and bowed, so now get set
And cross your fingers and pray!

An inverted rondel is how it begins
And then the new figure you’ll see
With simple instructions on sheets 1 and 2
And diagrams 1, 2 and 3.

Two highland settings, a knotted barette,
And end in the form of a square.
Crossing reels, look behind you, and with any luck
You’ll find that your partner is there.

Your partner is there, but ignore him or her,
The pattern now subtly alters –
You grab someone else and all promenade round
Backwards – but only three quarters.

The Mic-Mac Rotary bit comes next,
You loop and you loop again,
A quadruple figure of eight, and then
A five-and-a-half-bar chain.

A two-and-a-half-bar turn ends the dance,
An experience no one should miss.
Wherever, whenever, whatever you’ve danced
You’ve never met something like this!

I hope you enjoy it – I think that you will –
And I do hope you think it’s alright
To give yo this preview of what he might dream
When he’s having a very bad night!

(Previously published in Reel 204)

saltire

After all that, you’re getting Mairi’s Wedding after all. If nothing else, it will give you a flavour of what all those verses are on about. It was also the first Scottish Country Dance we ever had thrown at us, and if you can look at it and tell us even one way in which that makes sense, we’ll bow to your wisdom. Personally, we’re still boggled.

Myn Lyking

Winter in Scotland and it’s been driech, which in plain English means it’s been raining doggedly since Thursday, when Murphy’s Law being in good working order, the family arrived. We’ve been trying to defend the appeal of a seaside town with sideways wind and twilight at 3 ever since. For our part, we’re combatting the weather this evening by drinking a late pot of Kashmiri Chai. It’s lighter than most chai, with a base in green tea; we discovered this pouring out, when the colour initially suggested the tea was understeeped. In fact it’s meant to be a golden colour. It’s further embellished by cinnamon, nutmeg and marigold flowers. And being chai, it is the ideal antidote to winter, whatever the weather.

We haven’t had much time spare for poetry hunting of late, what with trying to acclimatise three Canadians to Scotland. But last Sunday we were gifted a new carol by the conductor of our choir who told us to open Carols for Choirs to ‘Myn Lyking’ as if everyone knew of it. They should, so here this evening is both the Middle English text for you, and the carol to accompany it.

Myn Lyking 

15th Century (set by R. Terry)

I saw a fair mayden sytten and sing
She lulled a little childe, a sweete Lording.

Lullay mye lyking, my dere sonne, my sweeting.
Lully mydere herte, myn own dere derling.

That same Lord is he that made alle thing,
Of alle lord is his is lord, of alle kynges King.

There was mickle melody at that chylde’s birth
All that were in heav’nly bliss, they made mickle myrth.

Angels bright sang their song to that chyld;
Blyssid be thou, and so be she, so meek and so mild.