At this time of year, for me, as the temperature goes down and the decorations go up, there’s always a ‘Carols for Choirs’ shaped gap.
As a six year old boy treble and then as a young counter tenor and bass, the weeks from September onwards meant only one thing – Christmas.
The run up to Christmas Day was linked together with a paperchain of rehearsals, concerts, services and carols. Learning new music, and adding more pencil marks to the annually-distributed copies of Carols for Choirs as we polished well-sung, familiar arrangements.
Before the bright and church-rammed Christmas morning service, there was the far more magical Midnight mass. As trebles in a market town parish church that fancied itself a cathedral, with choral standards to match, each of us hoped we would be the one to have Stephen Cowley, our choirmaster, tap us on the shoulder as we lined up in the vestry to process in. That tap, and Mr Cowley’s calm words of encouragement, meant you’d be taking the treble solo in “Once in Royal David’s City”.
At the back of the darkened church, the chosen treble would get a simple three note ascending phrase from the organ and be expected to launch, on his own, into the first verse of the well-known carol.
With the inevitable nerves there was a good chance of going sharp. If the carol had been unaccompanied throughout, this would have been of little consequence. Only those with perfect pitch would, perhaps unseasonably, have winced a little. But, sadistically, the piece’s arranger, David Willcocks, had written the organ accompaniment to start at verse 2. If you’d strayed any more than a tinselswidth out of pitch it was both painful, public and obvious.
This was the worst of our fears until the tapped singer was the junior treble, Neville Poole. Neville was a whirlwind in a cassock and surplice. His voice was exceptional, but getting him to concentrate on one thing at a time was like crocheting butter. He was almost humming with anticipation and excitement by the time he’d reached the back of the church. It was Neville’s moment of glory. Only his brother, Nigel, who was Head Chorister, looked a little concerned. But I don’t think even he realised what was coming.
The choir arranged itself in an arc, facing the east end and the high altar. The organ played the quiet ascending introduction of D, F#, G and Neville took a breath and started singing. It was a few seconds before the choir realised that, rather than starting (as he should have) on the D, he’d kicked off on the G – a perfect fourth higher.
This would make things problematic for Stephen at the organ console as he’d need to transpose at sight for his verse two accompaniment. But this was easy by comparison with the task Neville had set himself, his fellow trebles – and the congregation. Rather than having to stroll up to a simple E in the second half of the verse, they’d now have to hurdle a rather higher clean top A when they reached “Mary was that mother mild.”
You could almost see the thought processes of the other trebles as they worked forward and realised they’d need to clear the high C in the last verse descant. Plenty of worried looks and mental warm-up stretches started.
This was going to be interesting.
Neville, meanwhile, sung on unaware of the chaos he was about to create. At least, he did until he reached “…in a manger for his bed”, the line just before Armageddon A, and realisation dawned. He and I were standing at opposite ends of the choir’s semicircle, so I was facing him when he realised he’d started squealingly too high. I imagine skydivers who find their main ‘chute has failed wear similar facial expressions as they hurtle towards the planet at 120mph.
But, Neville being Neville, he just went for it. The Christmas angels were clearly on his side that midnight. He hit his top A as though he’d meant it all along. The rest of us broke out the crampons and ice-axes and followed him up there on verse 2 and the last verse descant. The only members of the congregation who even attempted it were the small crowd who’d rolled out of the Blue Boar and poured themselves in just as the service started. Actually, they didn’t do a bad job.
But even mistakes became part of the choir’s Christmas traditions. A fine example was Darke’s setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Herbert White’s – a wonderful, natural tenor – solo. Even in his late 70s, he’d lean back against the choir stall and let his voice ring round the chancel’s vaulting as he soared up to “The ox and camel which adore.” Every year, without fail, he’d get the words wrong, singing “The ox and ass and camel we adore” until it would have, quite simply, been unthinkable for him to have sung them as Rossetti intended.
The year after Herbert died, I was touched beyond words to be asked to sing his solo. Of course, I made sure I sung the words just as he would have wanted.
In the weeks leading up to midnight mass we’d carol around the old people’s homes in the town. As a treble, I’d look forward to the apparently bottomless bags of sweets and sugary hot chocolate provided at each stop. When my voice broke and I sang with the back row, a nudge in the ribs and a passed hip flask as I paged through ‘Carols for Choirs” to find the next piece meant I finally felt one of the Gentlemen of the Choir.
As we walked, increasingly unsteadily, between each home, we’d launch a few verses mistily into the freezing air, just for the hell of it. We’d swap parts and laughter as basses falsettoed their way up to treble descants. We often found our way into one or two pubs along the way too, replacing their comfortably beery background hum with a verse or two of “Hark the Herald” or “We Three Kings”, with the regulars joining in with “Ohhhhhhhhhhh starofwonder…”
Later, singing with my school’s chamber choir, I remember a candle-lit carol service at Holy Trinity, Dilton Marsh, a village between Frome and Westbury. It was our wonderful choirmaster, Garry Jones’ home patch, so we were determined to do him proud. We sang one to a part, and in Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin” I exalted in the unity, control and freedom that singing in small choirs gives. Gratia divina.
The next year, we sang at the cathedral in Wells. I found myself in the darkened chancel, desperately trying to stop the lit taper I was holding from betraying my nerves. I was to sing the unaccompanied, baritone solo from Vaughan Williams “The Truth From Above” at the start of the service as the whole packed cathedral was in darkness.
I’d rehearsed until, had it been any lesser composer than RVW, I’d have hated the piece. But, as I held the tuning fork that gave me my note to my ear and began the first line, “This is the truth sent from above…” any apprehension dissolved against the glory of Wells’ soaring acoustics. A donkey would have sounded good under that roof. I still remember the kind words of a lady from the congregation as I left the cathedral. “I hope the next time I hear you, young man, it will be on Radio 3.” That would have been wonderful indeed, but not to be.
By contrast, I’d often cycle from St John’s to St. Katherine’s, a tiny village church in East Woodlands, a few miles away. They were short of men, so any reinforcements to the back row were welcome. Just after my voice broke, I sang my first Christmas morning service there as a newly minted bass. In fact, the only bass and with a packed church.
I slung my bike against a gravestone and just about squeaked in on time to find the music in my stall included Willcocks’ arrangement of “Away in a manger”. Easy enough, I assumed, flicking ahead to the next page of music. Until we started singing and I reached the semiquaver runs in “The stars in the bright sky” and nearly had kittens as I attempted to sight read my way through it. I learned two things – it wasn’t half as difficult as it looked and to read through the music before I started singing.
But, every year, the pattern was the same. Christmas began as the school term started, with unfamiliar, new carols and culminated on Christmas morning with the last, ever-familiar chords of “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning” underscored with the 16ft pedal reeds of the ancient Norman and Beard organ as we processed out of the chancel’s polished brass gates to Christmas dinners and presents.
Even though I sang my last Christmas service in Frome twenty eight years ago, I still miss it.