Janet (j4) wrote,

Voices singing in our ears

I seem to have spent a lot of the last few days with my head full of Christmas carols, and I'm getting increasingly frustrated at how difficult it is to search for carols which I half-remember. Google is excellent in very many ways, but hasn't quite got to the stage where I can sing a few notes of music at it and expect to get back full details of the song.

The one that's niggling at the edge of my consciousness at the moment is a version of "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day" which I've sung before but haven't been able to find since; it's a modern and rhythmically rather unusual version, but beyond that I'm not sure how I can describe it without singing it.

It's during carol-singing season that I can't help wishing that I'd taken GCSE German instead of Greek; apart from the occasional kyrie eleison Greek isn't much help to me in a choral context. If I had a little more German I wouldn't have to rely on Google's translation skills, which created a gloriously dissociated mess out of this one:
"It is a Ros risen from a root tenderly like us old sungen, out jesse came the kind and has a Bluem flax broke in the middle in the cold winter probably to the half night the Roeslein which I means, of it Jeaja says, has us alone brought Marie the pure farm servant out God ewgem advice, has it a child born, probably to the half night"

Somehow I think we'll be sticking to the German version; hopefully at some point before the 20th I'll have time to get my pronunciation sorted out. Our conscientious junior Organ Scholar at Pembroke would have been ashamed of me, after the amount of time he put in to getting the choir syllable-perfect for "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern", which apart from being a fantastic chorale in its own right forms the accompaniment to Peter Cornelius's Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar.

Part of the reason I'm so keen on Three Kings... is undoubtedly the associations it has for me, as it was always a staple of my school's Carol Services, which were in many ways the highlight of my school year. Loughborough High School's Carol Services were really quite a production; four 'performances' (two afternoon, two evening) and fairly lengthy. The format was a kind of elaborated nine-lessons-and-carols; in addition to the traditional carols (sung by school and congregation) and Bible readings, there were non-Scriptural readings, carols and Christmas songs sung only by the choirs, and a number of tableaux of famous paintings of the Nativity, the Annunciation, various Adorations, and so on.

A role in the Tableaux (for they were always spoken of with a capital letter) was something that nearly everybody aspired to; fortunate indeed were the junior girls who managed to get parts as shepherd-boys and juvenile Saints. Once in the exalted ranks of the Sixth, everybody who wanted to had a chance to participate; by then, nearly everybody wanted to be an Angel, notwithstanding the excruciating half-kneeling positions that Annunciation seems to require of the messenger. These positions, of course, had to be maintained for the duration of the reading or song which accompanied the relevant tableau.

The readings were many and varied. My first Carol Service was the first time I'd heard the opening of the Gospel according to St John; and after fourteen more years of studying language, literature, humanity and God, I still don't think I can do anything more than adulterate it by trying to describe it.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Among the non-Scriptural readings, the Carol Services also introduced me to something which rapidly became (and has remained) another favourite -- Eliot's The Journey of the Magi:

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

In the services, the reading always ended here; it wasn't until many years and carol services had passed that I came to read the poem, and discovered that there was a final stanza which cast a whole new light on the poem:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

That extra stanza, when I realised it existed, shocked me; suddenly the poem seemed to have been smuggled into the service under false pretences, twisted to suit a different agenda. It seems naive now but at the time it was an important lesson for me: we choose where to end our stories; it's how we give them meaning.

The climax of the service was a tableau of The Madonna of the Candelabra; the stage was masked by a screen with a circular aperture in it, and from either side of this a flame-haired angel gazed adoringly at the Virgin with the Child on her lap. This was the only tableau which featured a real child -- a suitably photogenic kindergarten kiddie was bribed with sweets to sit still for the duration of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. The choir was in darkness for this song, so as not to detract from the low lighting for the tableau; we had to know the words by heart. I sang it as a wide-eyed junior, craning round in every pause to see the pretty angels because I'd never seen anything like the Tableaux before; I sang it as a senior who knew her school-days were nearly over; and every single one of those nearly 30 times I had tears in my eyes through the final verse:

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned
With the fire of life impassioned
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round thy throne.

After the last notes and their aftermath had faded away, the house lights came back up, everybody stood up, and choir and congregation sang "O Come All Ye Faithful", with the school choirs taking the descant. The subsequent recessional always felt like something of an anticlimax, but it didn't matter; the important bits had already happened. We choose where to end our stories.
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