19 December, 2012

The Mayor & The Simpleton

When I was about to retire from teaching some seven or so years ago people told me that I would  especially miss the Christmas festivities that go on in all schools - the singing of carols, Christmas parties, the Nativity, the disco, the excitement of the children and the like. I can’t say that I have – in fact I’ve been happier in the more moderate build up to Christmas without the frenetic activity of pre-Christmas school life!
There is , however, one element of school Christmases that I have rather missed – the words of Christmas. For many, many years I was the person who “wrote” and produced the Christmas carol concert or nativity. Each year we concentrated on telling the Christmas story in a different way – it may have been via the Russian story of Babushka, or by taking a historical theme such as a medieval mystery play or by looking at how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the globe but, whatever, it was a vehicle to retell the great story of the first Christmas. Each year I would plough through books to find suitable poetry, words and ideas to put the whole thing together so that in the end the kids not only retold the Christmas story but also maybe learned a bit – a wonderful poem, a bit of history or some legend from long ago or some far off place. In my researches and resulting “scripts” I came across many wonderful pieces and somehow or other tried to fit them jigsaw like into the tale.

And at this time of year I often think back to some of the great words that I came across and I find myself flicking back through my old school books and re-reading some of the wonderful verses and extracts that I used and which, through the ages, people have scribed down as their thoughts on the Christmas story.

Some of my favourites might only be a couple of lines long......

”And did you know that every flake of snow,
That forms so high, in the grey winter sky
And falls so far is a bright six pointed star......”
(Clive Samson: “Snowflakes”)

Others might be great tracts that retell the whole story from a particular perspective......
“Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three wise men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their  guide was a beautiful wonderful star..........”
(Longfellow: “Three Kings Came Riding”)

Of all those I used over the years two or three stand out above all others as having something special and pertinent to say at this time of commercial frenzy when it is easy to forget what it is all about. One is the great poem by John Betjeman “Christmas” – see blog: http://www.arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-waiting-bells.html .

Another is Kipling’s “Eddi’s Service”:

“Eddi, priest of St Wilfrid
In the chapel at manhood end,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend............”

Read Kipling's short poem and I defy anyone not to at least feel a twinge about the true meaning of the Christmas story.

And yet another is TS Eliot’s masterpiece: “Journey of the Magi”

“A cold coming we’ve had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter..........”

Like Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” Eliot’s is at one level a superficial, if different,  retelling of part of the Christmas story, but it  asks great questions in the final stanzas.
Ian Serraillier

And right up with the best of my favourites is the wonderful poem by Ian Serraillier “The Mayor and the Simpleton” . Serraillier is one of my favourite authors. I could not even begin to imagine how many times I have read his most famous work “The Silver Sword” to classes of children. Serraillier was a Quaker and a pacifist. In the Second World War he was a conscientious objector and his message of peace runs all the way through “The Silver Sword” – the story of refugee children in the war damaged Europe of the second World War. It is the sort of book that children can learn something about themselves and about growing up – as well as being edge of the seat exciting. Whenever I read it to a class, children would exclaim “Ohhhhh” when we got to the end of a chapter – and want to read another one!

Serraillier’s poem, it seems to me, gets to the heart of what Christmas is about – in a rather strange way. It reminds us of what we are about as we tear open our Christmas presents or we  sing “Silent Night” . I always think of it at this time of year – I know the words by heart – I have so often spent time with children as they learned their lines or put expression into the words as we rehearsed it for a  Christmas “production”. But a couple of days ago I was reminded of it for another reason.

Making up food parcels in one of the
world's richest countries. We should be
ashamed not making excuses.
In the UK (and, I guess, in other parts of the world) a day does not pass without newspapers and TV reporting people being thrown out of work. The other side of the coin is that we still hear each day it seems of bankers and others associated in high finance and corporate life receiving huge bonuses, of vast wealth in certain sections of society and of calculated misuse of  influence by those with access to power and wealth. Our society is becoming, daily, more divided between the “haves” and the “have nots”. I read only the other day that in my area – a wealthy area of the midlands - there has been a huge increase in the number of ordinary people receiving food handouts – this, in one of the world’s richest countries. In Monday’s Guardian a full page article described how the head teacher of a highly successful and government applauded school in Essex is concerned and angry at the number of his pupils who come from “good” homes but are increasingly ill clothed or fed simply because austerity is biting. The Head was using his own money to buy a winter coat for a boy whose parents could not afford one - a symptom of an escalating economic crisis that has seen the number of pupils in the area taking home food parcels triple in a year. The Head described how even children with a parents in work were often struggling and having to choose between heating their homes, buying their children clothes or having enough food.
Oh! I am such an important man -
I havequick riposte and glib gag
for every occasion

And against this backdrop of an ever more unequal society this weekend the Mayor of London, the amiable buffoon, (and, because of that carefully cultivated persona, highly dangerous) Boris Johnson made another of his misguided utterances. Except that this was, I felt, offensive, unacceptable and thoughtless from an extremely wealthy and, sadly, very influential man. The fact that Johnson finds himself the leader of our capital city is, in my view, an affront to decency and, indeed, democracy. That Johnson has risen to this position (and is, staggeringly, tipped as a future national leader) sadly says far more about our society and the people who voted for him than it does about the man himself. His glib “off the cuff” comments, his “clever dick" one liners, his relentless self promotion and pathetic pseudo intellectualism built upon a mock veneer of the odd Latin quote and affected accent reflect badly not only upon the man himself but also upon an easily impressed and gullible electorate. Johnson is the personification of shallow pomposity and while being interviewed on TV over the weekend he suggested people should not to "sneer" at the coffee chain Starbuck’s over its decision to grudgingly pay £20m in corporation tax. The company has paid £8.6m in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK and nothing in the last three years, despite UK sales of nearly £400m in 2011. Starbuck’s, he reminded us was showing "corporate responsibility" and the issue was "difficult". 

It is not "difficult". In an age when millions are out of work – largely because of the lack of “corporate responsibility” in past years it is  an eye wateringly irresponsible and offensive statement. In the past weeks there has been much media comment and hand wringing about multinational companies “playing” the tax system and legally paying less tax than they might – Amazon, Google, Starbuck’s and many others have jumped on this money laundering band wagon. Starbuck’s have been highlighted and a series of demonstrations have occurred outside many of their shops. For Johnson to suggest that they should not be criticised or that they are now showing “corporate responsibility” by making a nominal tax donation because they have been “caught with their trousers down” says much about Johnson’s own beliefs and possible actions. The issue is not, as Johnson suggests, “difficult” – it is extremely simple: Starbuck’s and others pay the tax required in the spirit it is intended and be pleased to do it – there can be nothing simpler.
Starbuck's have the spotlight turned on them

I do not suggest that Starbuck’s paying of appropriate tax will solve the problems of the Head Teacher who takes his children down the local “Primark” to buy them a coat out of his own money – there are deeper issues. But a few extra billions in the national coffers will certainly help and it would say much about the sort of society we would all wish for. For Johnson to come out with this pathetic and pompous defence of corporate greed is a disgrace - especially at a time when we are reminded daily that many in the UK  (one of the world’s richest nations) will be without basic comforts this Christmas. Reading this
my mind idly wandered to another mayor - the one in  the Serraillier Christmas poem “The Mayor and the Simpleton”. And in a flash I saw Boris Johnson in this other guise! The unthinking, callous and irresponsible utterances by the pompous, self important Mayor of London seemed to me to be a twenty first century mirror of Serraillier’s pompous mayor – full of talk, full of trivial and misguided comment but with no feeling for common humility and humanity. Johnson should be ashamed - but perhaps, too, should all those people who elected him as Mayor of London and who now talk of him as a prospective national leader.

The Mayor & The Simpleton

They followed the Star to Bethlehem – Boolo the baker, Barleycorn the farmer,
Old Darby & Joan, a small boy Peter, and
A simpleton whose name was Innocent,
Over the snowfields and frozen rutted lanes
They followed the Star to Bethlehem.

Innocent stood at the stable door
and watched them enter. A flower
stuck out of his yellow hair; his mouth gaped open
like a drawer that wouldn’t shut.
He beamed upon the child where he lay
among the oxen, in swaddling clothes in the hay,
his blue eyes shining as steady as the Star overhead;
beside him old Joseph and
Mary his mother, smiling
And Innocent was delighted.

They brought gifts with them – Boolo, some fresh crusty loaves
(warm from the baking) which he laid
at the feet of the infant Jesus, kneeling
in all humility.
And Innocent was delighted.

Barleycorn brought two baskets – one with a dozen eggs,
the other with two chickens – which he laid
at the feet of the infant Jesus, kneeling
in all humility.
And innocent was delighted.

Darby and Joan brought apples and pears from their garden,
wrapped in her apron and stuffed
in the pockets of his trousers; the little boy
a pot of geraniums – he had grown them himself.
And they laid them
at the feet of the infant Jesus, kneeling
in all humility.
And Innocent was delighted.

The mayor rolled up in his coach with a jingle of bells
and a great to do. He stepped out with a flourish
and fell flat on his face in the snow. His footmen
picked him up and opened his splendid
crimson umbrella. Then he strutted to the door,
and while the white flakes floated down
and covered it with spots. He was proud of his umbrella
and didn’t mean to give it away.

Shaking the snow off onto the stable floor,
The mayor peered down at the child where he lay
Among the oxen, in swaddling clothes in the hay,
His blue eyes shining steady as the Star overhead,
Mary his mother smiling.
And Innocent was puzzled.

And the mayor said: “On this important occasion
Each must take a share in the general thanksgiving.
Hence the humble gifts – the very humble gifts –
which I see before me. My own contribution
is  something special -  a speech. I made it up myself and I’m sure
you’ll all like it. Ahem. Pray silence for the mayor.”

“Moo, moo” said the oxen

“My fellow citizens,
the happy event I refer to -  in which we all rejoice –
has caused a considerable stir in the parish....”

“In all the world” said a little voice.

Who spoke? Could it be Innocent, who, always shy,
Timid as a butterfly, frightened
as a sparrow with a broken wing? Yes, it was he Now God had made him bold.
“I fear I must start again” said the mayor.
“My fellow citizen, in the name of the people of this parish
I am proud to welcome one
who promises so well......”

“He is the Son of Heaven” said Innocent

The mayor took no notice
“I prophesy a fine future for him,
almost – you might say – spectacular.
He’ll do us all credit. At the same time I salute in particular
the child’s mother, the poor woman who.....”

“She is not poor but the richest, most radiant
of mothers.”

“Simpleton, how dare you interrupt!”
snapped the mayor.

But God, who loves the humble, heard him not.
He made him listen, giving Innocent the words:
“Mr Mayor, you don’t understand. This birth
is no local event. The child is Jesus,
King of kings and Lord of lords.
A stable is His place and poverty his dwelling place –
Yet he has come to save the world. No speech of yours
Is worthy of Him....”

“Tush” said the mayor.
“I took a lot of trouble. It’s a rare
and precious gift, my speech – and now
I can’t get a word in edgeways.”

“Rare and precious did you say? Hear what the child
has brought us – peace on earth, goodwill towards men.
O truly rare and precious gift!”

“Peace on earth” said the neighbours
“goodwill towards men! O truly rare
and precious gift!” They knelt in all humility,
in gratitude to the child who lay
among the oxen, in swaddling  clothes in the hay,
his blue eyes shining steady as the Star overhead,
beside him old Joseph and
Mary, his mother, smiling.

The mayor was silent. God gave the simpleton
no more to say, Now
like a frightened bird
over the snowfields and frozen rutted lanes
he fluttered away. Always, as before, a flower
stuck out of his yellow hair; his mouth gaped open
like a drawer that wouldn’t shut.
He never spoke out like that again.

As for the mayor, he didn’t finish his speech.
He called for his coach And drove off, frowning,
much troubled. For a while
he thought of what the simpleton had said
But he soon forgot all about it, having
Important business to attend to in town.

Ian Serraillier

Goodwill to all men...as long as it's corporation tax deductable

I suspect that Boris Johnson and others on the corporate/power bandwagon will, too, have “important business to attend to in town” over Christmas – he and they will "soon forget", Serraillier's mayor did,  about the poor and the homeless on London’s streets and those having to choose between warmth, food and clothes. He and they will, I have no doubt, have lots of corporate gatherings to attend, pompous speeches to make, lots of self adulation in which to wallow, much champagne to drink and turkey to eat. And, I have no doubt, they will all – unlike the Essex schoolboy - have a warm coat on their backs and maybe a few presents under their corporate Christmas trees. 

And no, Mr Mayor, problems with corporate tax avoidance are not "difficult" to resolve – they are so very simple that even a simpleton could come up with the answer – pay the required tax, pay it on time, do not employ people whose sole purpose is to find ways to legally and often shady ways to  minimise your tax obligations and last, but not least, be pleased that your corporation is given the privilege (and yes, it should be considered a privilege) of trading in our country. That is the humanitarian message that the Mayor should have been sending out. Instead he decided to side with greed and excess and maybe that’s why our pompous and shallow Mayor of London may have  a little “Christmas Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year” card from a certain multinational company’s PR department under his Christmas tree!

16 December, 2012

Thank You Mr Handel, Thank You RDCS

A full church and everyone takes their seats
As the final “Amen” rang out in St Peter’s Church Ruddington last night Handel’s great Messiah came to a close and the audience erupted as one into a tremendous applause. Christmas had arrived for me, and I suspect very many of the audience, choir and orchestra. Everyone in the church knew that they had witnessed and taken part in something not only very special – the 50th anniversary of the Ruddington and District Choral Society - but also a very special performance.  The Choir has performed this piece many, many times over the years – but I suspect none more successfully or more fully and warmly acclaimed than this. To say that everyone put their hearts into it does not begin to do it justice.  (See previous blog: http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/sdgsoli-deo-gloria-to-god-alone-glory.html).

The day had started well. When the postman delivered the mail, included in our little pile of Christmas cards was one easily recognisable from its envelope. The oriental script  and the “air mail” stamp told us that it had come from Japan. A young Japanese lady who lived in Nottingham until three or four years ago and was a keen choir member each year sends a card and a small donation to the choir – for the card to have arrived just before the performance seemed a good omen from the far side of the world.

The audience stood as one for the "Hallelujah"
Sadly, however, things soon began to look less auspicious. The omens ceased to look so good! Winter chills, sickness bugs and throat infections had meant that a number of stalwarts had had to cry off and so depleted the choir. And only a few hours before the performance was due to start two of the soloists succumbed to illness and so replacements had to be found at very short notice. Programmes had to be amended to advise the audience of the changes – it was a very busy day! Having rehearsed throughout the afternoon everyone would have felt just a little anxious and perhaps a little jaded.
The "Amen" reaches its climax

But, as they say, “it was alright on the night” – well actually it wasn’t – it was quite magical, an outstanding performance by anyone’s standards and a fitting tribute not only to the current choir but indeed all those people who have been part of it during the last fifty years. Every single person rose to the occasion wonderfully. The soloists were superb and the orchestra – English Pro Musica - truly outstanding. But, of course, the real star was yet again Handel’s great oratorio. From the very first note, through the next two hours, to the point where the audience stood as one when the great  Hallelujah Chorus sounded and when the audience erupted as the final Amen rang out this was a recognition of something great and wonderful.
And the applause burst out!

I have no doubts that if Mr Handel was looking down on our village church last night he might just have nodded his head in approval – and maybe he pondered upon and smiled that three centuries after the wrote his mighty piece it is still performed and loved by so many throughout England and the rest of the world.

Christmas is here. Thank you, Mr Handel, thank you RDCS!

11 December, 2012

"Beautiful & Magical!"

One of my pet hates and guaranteed to put me in grumpy old man mode  is the way in which, today, adjectives like “amazing”, “fantastic” “ great” and so on are applied to very ordinary situations and people. “It was a fantastic goal” sports pundits scream when in fact the scorer simply kicked the ball between two posts 24 feet wide and 8 feet high (wider and higher than my living room!). “He’s amazing” we hear young people say as they describe some pop celebrity. The wedding was “awesome” I recently read on the front of a celebrity magazine in the newspaper shop.  It seems to me to be becoming ever more difficult to distinguish between the truly good or great and the everyday or the trivial. I have long since come to the conclusion that the more hyperbola that is attached to a person or situation then generally the more quickly it will be forgotten. The truly great people and events do not need advertisement and  hyperbola – they speak for themselves.
The Porcupine -
an excellent lunch

I was reminded of this on Saturday – a day which for two very different reasons I do not think I will forget. An increasingly  painful day turned out to be one of those days when I saw something that truly was "awesome", "amazing" and "great" - and so very memorable. 

Pat and I were visiting our son and his family near Maidenhead. We had decided to take advantage of our proximity to London to go up to London to the theatre and had managed to get tickets to see the wonderful classical actor Simon Callow perform his one man show retelling Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I am a great fan of Simon Callow - his wonderful melodious voice, I swear could make the telephone directory sound like great literature. But he is more than that - much more. He has a commanding stage presence and yet a great humanity - and the result is that no matter what the part he slips into it's like slipping into a well worn shoe. He has such a feel for the language and the character that he makes every character he plays utterly believable. 

Unfortunately we got off to a bad start – I woke up on Saturday morning in severe pain from sciatica – a condition that I occasionally suffer from. However, we set off but as the pain got worse I began to question the wisdom of this decision! With the help of my walking stick and a lot of difficulty, we managed the packed underground stations and eventually found ourselves at Leicester Square. It was a matinee performance so we thought we would have some lunch in London and then go to the theatre just off Leicester Square. By the time that we arrived at the theatre I was desperate to find somewhere where I could sit down for a good period to ease my back and leg pain! We were in luck – within yards of the underground station and virtually opposite the theatre we found a very pleasant pub – The Porcupine - where we had a lovely lunch and were able to sit and relax a little. After lunch, and by now I was in some agony, we crossed the road to the theatre. As we sat in our seats waiting for the show to begin I took two more painkillers and began to think maybe we should have gone home. Fortunately, the seat was comfortable and my pain eased a  little..........and, at last, the lights dimmed in the little theatre and Simon Callow shuffled onto the dimly lit  and bleak set.
The Arts Theatre

And from the moment Callow appeared and opened his mouth I sat entranced, my pain all but forgotten as I watched – sometimes open mouthed, always immensely moved at this great, great actor retell Dickens’ wonderful tale. Callow is not only a great actor but a great lover of Dickens – to simply hear his rich and constantly changing voice repeat Dickens’ great words is to hear the very best of our language. To have been privileged enough to have sat for an hour and a half in that theatre and watch this man, totally alone and with no technological aids or the razzmatazz  so often associated with so much theatre  and film today retell, with gentle humour, passion, humility and immense tenderness the story of Ebenezer Scrooge was quite humbling. Every one of the three or four hundred people in that packed theatre knew the story as well as I and, I guess like me, knew many of the words – but we all saw the characters and the story with new insight on Saturday afternoon and we all hung on every single word uttered by Callow. For ninety minutes the whole audience sat mesmerised and in awe of this performance – our attention never wavering one millimetre – as Callow’s words, expressions, gestures, stagecraft, body language, wonderful voice and command drew us into the world of Dickens. We were no longer in a 21st century theatre in the busy West End but had been transported, as surely as Ebenezer Scrooge was transported by the spirits who visited him, to the dimly  lit back streets and alley ways of Victorian London. We were present with Scrooge as we peeped into poor home of Bob Cratchit; we were afraid, as was Scrooge, when Callow invoked the ghost of Jacob Marley; we were joyful with Scrooge when he realised the error of his ways. We watched in awe as Callow effortlessly slipped from one character and into another – one second he was grasping, withered Ebenezer and in the twinkle of an eye changed to be Scrooge’s jovial, loving nephew. Then he was a spectre guiding and terrifying Scrooge as they visited Christmases past, present and future – and next Tiny Tim or Mrs Cratchit carrying in the Christmas pudding "her face flushed but smiling proudly"! At once he was Mrs Fezziwig, dancing with his wife and then Bob Cratchit plaintively and overwhelmingly sadly describing Tiny Tim's final resting place. We all laughed and our minds eye saw the London ragamuffin gazing up at Scrooge's window that Christmas morning as Scrooge called down to the lad "What's to-day, my fine fellow"  and we all "saw" the great turkey hanging in the poulterers window. Callow's magic ensured that we inhabited Scrooge's miserable rooms and we could almost taste the "speckled cannon ball" of a Christmas pudding that Mrs Cratchit proudly bore. He was these people, he took us to these places –  we were there with him - he made Dickens' words and  Dickens' world real!
Callow in the Programme

And, as Callow spoke the great words, their great message of love for mankind, became clear to us. This was not just a nice Christmas story - it had a message and Callow brought it to life with force, energy and great insight and no little humour. When Jacob Marley  ruefully and pitifully confesses to  Scrooge that he wears his chains because of the selfish life he had led and says “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forebearance and benevolence, were, all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.......why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down........” Callow and Dickens together pricked all our consciences. This was a message as relevant today as it was in Dickens’ time. If Dickens were alive today he could and would write every bit as sad and piercing indictment of Britain (and maybe much  of the western world) as in his day.  And Callow took us all to that world – a world we had all read about before but never actually visited – until Saturday afternoon.
He held us in his palm!

In his programme notes, Simon Callow gave us a little peep into Dickens’ the man and the story of his writing A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ said that he “wept and laughed and wept again” as he wrote the tale. He knew that what he was writing was extraordinary and when he finished he underlined the words The End three times. The moment the book went on sale its first print run of 6000 sold out immediately as did the next two runs. Praise for the tale was overwhelming and from every level of society. Lord Jeffrey said “(it) had done more good “than all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom” Thackeray said “it is a national benefit and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness”. Callow commented “A Christmas Carol is many things – a ghost story, a parable about a man forced to face truths about himself, a realistic picture of social life, a celebration of Christian ideals – but at its heart is a frightening vision of abandoned, half human children – Ignorance and Want – that should make us shiver just as it did the prosperous Victorian classes......Dickens was not making this up; he had, on his ceaseless wanderings through the East End seen such children; he had given them money, held them in his arms, ensured they were provided for.....Dickens being Dickens, his story was no dry analysis of social conditions; he dramatised the whole ugliness of crude capitalism in the character of Scrooge – “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”........a sort of pioneer Thatcherite, believing there is no such thing as society and that the right place for the poor is the workhouse or the prison.” 

This was, at one level a truly great bit of theatre; at another level a telling indictment of the times in which Dickens’ and we live; at another level it was simply a wonderful reminder of the richness depth of both Dickens and the English language and literature. And in Callow’s hands he light heartedly but forcefully reminded us all of the inner message Dickens was sending to his fellow Victorians. I have absolutely no doubt that if Dickens were gazing down on that little theatre on Saturday afternoon he would have so approved of what Callow presented and reminded us of.
The First Edition in 1843

I have always loved to watch and listen to Callow – now, as the afternoon ended, I was quite overwhelmed – as were so many in the audience. When the tale ended and Callow uttered the words we all knew he would utter at the end  “He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” the audience erupted as one. Yes,  a standing ovation took place but that does not tell the full story or come close to describing the warmth and approval of us all. Every member of that audience knew they had witnessed something special  and had been privileged. Every person knew that not only had they seen a very special talent but had also been in the presence of a very great actor and very special human being. Callow stood there, erect, taking his bow, surrounded by the six old wooden chairs, the little fire and the old raincoat that had been his only props as he had strutted about that stage. Everything we had "seen" - the Cratchit's Christmas pudding, the spectres who visited Scrooge, the gravestone on which was writ "Ebenezer Scrooge", the great turkey that Scrooge sent to the Cratchit's, the merrymaking at Mr Fezziwig's, and the rest we saw because Callow and Dickens together painted them in our minds - they were word pictures and all the more powerful for it than mere stage props.And as he bowed again and again I could only wonder at how much a performance like that must take out of him and how can he reproduce it performance after performance. It makes the utterances about “pressure” that we hear from top soccer players, and the like, who play only one game or maybe two a week be seen for what they are pathetic moans. And I wondered at what makes true greatness? Here was a man who really can be described as amazing or great. Here was an event that will live long in the memories of all who sat there – truly “awesome”, quite unforgettable.
My damp marked book - illustrations by
 John Leech the first illustrator of A Christmas Carol

And today, as I sit at home nursing my painful back, I think again and again how glad that I am that we didn’t return home on Saturday when my back was so painful - that we struggled on to the theatre to witness Callow’s performance. A painful but wonderful and lasting experience. In the programme there is a quote from the Daily Telegraph review of the show. It is exactly right: “Beautiful and magical. There will be bigger, flashier shows on offer this Christmas, but none, I suspect, that will leave one quite so warmed and moved as this one”. Amen to that.

I have just I have looked again at one of the bits of my past – my copy of the Dickens’ “Christmas Books” – including the great “Christmas Carol” In the front cover my name is written in my child-like curly handwriting when I was twelve. The book was a Christmas  gift from my mother – “25.12.57” – my childlike hand has inscribed in the front. I can still today remember opening that book all those years ago and reading the opening words: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.........”. 

I can still vividly remember sitting under the little Christmas tree that stood each year on our sideboard, the coloured lights above my head,  reading the words and looking at the pictures. I didn’t know then that the pictures were exactly those used in the very first edition of the book in 1843 – drawn by the Victorian caricaturist John Leech. I didn’t dream that nearly sixty years later I would sit in  a London theatre and watch one of the country’s greatest actors declaim those great words or that I would still gain such huge pleasure from the words and the story – that surely is a mark of greatness.  The pages now are a little faded and with damp marks. But as I flick them near to my nose I can smell the smell of years past – taking me back in time. I can still smell the faint smell of cigarettes (my father and mother were both heavy smokers) that permeated the book as it sat on the shelves in their house – and now in mine. It smells of Christmases past – a reminder to me of what has gone before. Each time I open it and read the opening words, I cannot resist sniffing the pages – they evoke such memories of my own Christmases past. 

What a heritage Dickens has left us – and after Saturday afternoon a whole new layer has been added to my understanding of his great tale – thanks to a truly "great", "fantastic" and "awesome" actor – Simon Callow.

06 December, 2012

"SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria - "To God alone the glory".

As  I noted in my last blog there are many pieces of great  music that I enjoy each year at Christmastide – Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Telemann’s Festive Suite, Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Number 8 ( often called  The Christmas Concerto) and many, many more – but above them all towers Handel’s great masterpiece The Messiah. Undeniably, like Bach’s St Matthew Passion,  it is one of the very  great musical works.  It is, however,  like other great pieces, more than simply a good piece of music. Just as with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Bach’s St Matthew Passion or the Mozart Requiem  it is something that  reminds us what it is to be human – just small spots in a vast cosmos – and it confirms to  everyone, I believe, even those of no religious affiliation or view, that there is something deeper and more significant about Christmas than just torn wrapping paper, bottles of wine, Christmas stockings or turkey and stuffing. The Messiah  reminds us of what we are about – or should be about - for those few days in dark December whilst much of mankind watches TV shows and binges on his and her excesses.

Although the Messiah never usually comes out in our house before the beginning of Advent  this year this is not strictly true. For weeks now Pat has been practising. Every other year her choir – the Ruddington & District Choral Society - do a “community, sing along” Messiah in our local church – St Peter’s. This year, however, it is different. It is not a sing along Messiah, where the audience can join in if they wish, but a full concert version.  So, for weeks, the Messiah has been a constant background in Pat’s car radio as she practises her soprano part while she drives along! The community Messiah is a highlight of the choir’s year and the church is always filled – for many villagers, like ourselves, it signals the real start of Christmas. But this year’s concert version, however,  is extra special. The reason? – the Choir is fifty years old this year – and fifty years ago the Messiah was the first work that the newly formed choir sang in far back December 1962.  Today, fifty years later, Pat produces the choir programme and I write the programme notes so in the past few weeks we have been putting final touches to the document. It is now at the printers.

Researching the background to Handel’s great work  has been both rewarding and enlightening. I am always reminded, as I write the notes for a choir concert, of one of the great qualities and virtues of all music – be it pop, classical or any other. It is that when we listen to a piece of music, which might have been written many years before, it links us directly to that point in time when it was first heard - we are hearing what audiences listened to many hundreds of years ago when the notes were first played or sung. Our ears are their ears. If it is a piece written in our own lifetime then there is an extra dimension -  then we are hearing the same thing that we first heard as a youngster or a teenager and it reconnects us with our own past. It is, in short like touching, the past. This is true of many aspects of the arts – great paintings, old books, old buildings – they all mysteriously connect us with the past and with the people who first saw them or listened to or read them. The other night Pat and I sat watching a programme on TV about the Beach Boys pop group of the 1960’s – one of our favourites when we were younger. To hear again some of their songs transported us back to the sights, sounds, feelings, emotions, hopes and fears, tastes, smells of half a century ago – just for a few minutes and we listened to “Surfin USA, Fun, Fun. Fun, Good Vibrations and all the others in the Beach Boys repertoire we were no longer senior citizens but reliving our misspent  youth! Music has that peculiar power. And with something like the Messiah or a piece of Bach or Beethoven, although we cannot experience what the audience who first heard it experienced and thought, we can just get a little glimmer of their lives, aspirations and ambitions – and of course what wafted into their ears all those years ago. A powerful medium indeed.
Hot off the press - the programme

The Messiah research was no exception in this -  and the more that I read, the more I felt a real link with all those years ago when it was first written and performed – and indeed with the thousands of performances that have since taken place in all parts of the world. I also discovered that the story of the Messiah – and indeed I would guess of any other piece of music – tells us much about the people and places of the time – as well as giving us information about the composer or the piece.

I have seen and listened to the Messiah more times than I could possibly guess at. Indeed, it is one of the formative influences on my life – an almost “road to Damascus” experience which brought me to classical music as a teenager (see blog: http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/i-have-always-been-surprised-and.html). In the many performances I have seen and heard many stand out – often for the strangest of reasons. Twenty years ago Pat and I were holidaying in Florence. It was Easter and we passed a church outside of which was advertised a performance of the Messiah. We went along that night and sat like many others on the cold stone floor surrounded by great Italian works of art that decorated the church. Throughout the three hour performance ordinary Italians popped in and out – many simply walking their dogs but grabbing a few minutes of wonderful music at the same time. It was quite magical. And then as the opening bars of the "Hallelujah Chorus" struck up from the little orchestra, all the Brits in the church suddenly made themselves known – as if a switch had been pressed. We all stood to attention in the time honoured manner! Italians looked in confusion at what was happening when a third of the audience rose in unison and stood proud! Magic!
St Peter's Church Langton

The story of the Messiah is a rich mixture of national history, the great and the good and the everyday. It stretches from great opera houses and theatres to tiny villages; its story includes Kings and humble villagers; it encompasses the great sopranos and  tenors as well as the keen amateur musician and singer. It is a Christmas piece and an Easter favourite, but it is also a piece for all seasons; it is a piece to give us national pride and at the same time something for  “everyday country folk”.

My research on the Messiah began not a few weeks ago or even a  few months ago as this concert began to be planned. I simply came across a bit of the Messiah "jig saw" by accident one day about three years ago. I went, one afternoon, to visit a trainee teacher who  I was supervising as she did her teaching practice in a small village school in Leicestershire. After watching her teach we retired to the school staff room to discuss her lesson. On the notice board there was a notice advertising a performance of the Messiah in the local church and as I read the notice I noticed that the performance included some very well known, international singers. I wondered how the church in so small a village could afford such great names - and then I read the small print.  It was to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first church performance of the Messiah in England - the great and the good of the singing world were celebrating a very special event. The school was in the tiny village of Church Langton, the church was just across the road.

In the Spring of 1759, only a few weeks after Handel had died in London, a Leicestershire man, Church Langton resident and philanthropist, the Rev. William Hanbury, paid £500 for an organ to be built and transported to the local  church of St Peter’s in his village - mid way between Leicester and Market Harborough. It is about 40 miles away from Ruddington, where I live. According to local records, the sound of the organ was a terrifying prospect “....some of the common people were frighted and hurried out of the church with all speed....they thought the Day of Judgement was really come indeed.....” After the tumult has died down and the villagers had become used to the sounds of the organ and other instruments brought by Hanbury, the very first performance of the Messiah was given in an English parish church - on September 26th 1759. In the two day Handel musical festival that followed in the village records tell us that “the countryside flocked to the performance...accommodation of all kinds was at a premium, the price of food was nearly tripled, there were more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises....” This little snippet of local history and music represents well, perhaps, the bigger tale of the music of Handel and especially that of  Messiah. 
William Hanbury

Hanbury was a wealthy man with great ambitions and aspirations and he not only began the Messiah's church performance. He had plans to build a Minster to rival the great York Minster in his village. He never realised that dream but he did endow his village with other things - most notably the school in which I had sat that afternoon and watched that young teacher teach. It was and still is known as the Hanbury School and was "founded for the education and religious instruction of boys and girls of this parish".

But back to Messiah. It  was  composed in 1741 based on  a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, the Psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens, too, was a Leicestershire man - he lived only a few miles from Church Langton. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742, and received its London premier nearly a year later. After a modest public reception in London, the oratorio quickly gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel, of course, was a German – he became a naturalised Englishman and in his life time became almost more English than the English. He walked with Kings and composed some of the very great state music – much of it still with us. His Water Music, for example was played this year as the Royal Barge floated down the Thames in the Queen’s Jubilee Year - as it played in 1717 for George 1st as he cruised down the Thames. This week we have heard of the coming birth of a future King or Queen – the child of Prince William and Kate Middleton. As the crown is placed in that child’s head many years from now  the music that will be played will be that of Handel – Zadok the Priest. Handel's impact on the life of his adopted country was and still is huge. But although Handel walked with Kings he had to earn his crust and he composed furiously to earn a living. He was something of an impresario – putting on operas at a great rate. He owned shares in theatres – he was almost the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day! His fortunes went up and down and although he died a wealthy and respected man, like everyone else, he suffered success and failure. In an echo of today’s economically challenged times he lost a huge amount of money with the financial banking scandal known as the South Sea Bubble and, just as today, the fickle world of music with its ever changing fashions forced him to continually rethink his approach.
Handel at the time he wrote  Messiah

By the late 1730’s interest in grand Italian opera was declining – there was a move towards English language productions and although Handel continued to write and produce great opera he increasingly moved towards the English oratorio. In July 1741 Charles Jennens, a friend of Handel,  sent him a new libretto for an oratorio, and in a letter said: "I hope he [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".

The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens' text sometime after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed it in draft by 12 September, followed by two days of "filling up" to produce the finished work on 14 September.
Charles Jennens - who gave us the words

The score's 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholars the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote  "SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory". This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief  that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus”, "he saw all heaven before him". The reality is perhaps more worldy!  Many of Handel's compositions were composed within similar timescales – they had to be squeezed between theatrical and operatic seasons. There is significant evidence that Handel’s finances were at a low, fashions were changing and he needed a new idea to boost his bank account!  In short, for Handel and other musicians of the day, time was money! 

Handel agreed to give a season of six concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 following an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in early March it was further agreed to give a charity concert in April 1742 - the premier of Messiah.

He had been given permission from St Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion - a total of 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto, who had sung for Handel before. The charities that were to benefit were prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as "...far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom". Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crowded Audience" said one newssheet.  A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber's rendering of the aria "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
The Fishamble Music Hall in Dublin
where the Messiah was first performed

This warm reception to Messiah  however, was not quite repeated in London when Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre in  March 1743. The first performance was overshadowed by the view that the work's subject-matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Cibber. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities Handel  avoided the name “Messiah” and presented the work as the "New Sacred Oratorio". Although the custom of standing for the "Hallelujah Chorus” originates from a belief that, at the London premier, King George II did so, there is no convincing evidence that the King was actually present. However,  the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated 1756 – by which time the King had certainly witnessed the oratorio so there may be some truth in the tale.

During the 1750s Messiah was performed increasingly at festivals and cathedrals throughout the country and after Handel's death, performances were given in Florence, New York, Hamburg  and  Mannheim - where Mozart first heard it. These were still relatively small affairs involving twenty or thirty singers in the manner originally scored by Handel rather than grand “theatre” productions.

But by 1784 a fashion for larger-scale performances began with a series of commemorative concerts of Handel's music given in  Westminster Abbey under the patronage of King George III. A plaque on the Abbey wall records that "The Band consisting of DXXV [525] vocal & instrumental performers was conducted by Joah Bates Esqr."  In 1787 further performances were given at the Abbey; advertisements promised, "The Band will consist of Eight Hundred Performers". By the mid nineteenth century performances had become increasingly grandiose. Messiah was presented in New York in 1853 with a chorus of 300 and in Boston in 1865 with more than 600.  In Britain a performance held at the Crystal Palace in 1857 had 2,000 singers and an orchestra of 500!
Handel's autograph on the first score

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get on the Messiah bandwagon! There were, however, growing dissenting voices towards the grand scale production. George Bernard Shaw commented, "Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness ..... does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."  Bernard Shaw’s plea was increasingly heard and although the huge-scale oratorio tradition was perpetuated by large ensembles such as the Royal Choral Society, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society in the 20th century, there were increasingly calls for performances more faithful to Handel's smaller concept.
Despite the popularity of the large scale production the tide was turning. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wrote that  "after the heyday of Victorian choral societies.....[there was a] rapid and violent reaction against monumental performances....... [the Messiah] should be played and heard as in the days between 1700 and 1750".

And in the intervening years, the Messiah has increasingly “come home” – to village hall and parish church. We now have “sing along” Messiahs, hugely popular community Messiahs like our own Ruddington biennial concerts; at the turn of the Millenium, choir members from throughout Nottinghamshire filled Southwell Minister to sing, and be inspired as the 21st century began by the well loved words and music. And what was begun in Dublin by Handel and continued only a few weeks after the composer’s death in St Peter’s, Church Langton by the Reverend Hanbury will be continued over 250 years later in our own St Peters here in Ruddington.  And, of course, it will be being heard and sung  in churches and village halls throughout the country. It has come full circle – to a village church in the middle of England just as Hanbury dreamed of when he listened that Messiah in his own village church in the middle of England in 1759.

St Peter's in Ruddington where we will
again listen to the great work
As I rounded off my programme notes I commented that: “We cannot, tonight, promise you the Day of Judgement feared by the villagers of Church Langton and we hope that you will not rush from our own St Peter’s “frighted” as did those villagers in 1759! We cannot promise that your sins will be forgiven as was promised to contralto Sussana Cibber in Dublin! We do not anticipate having to ask gentlemen to remove their swords of ladies remove their skirt hoops as Handel did almost three centuries ago! And we sincerely hope the price of food in Ruddington does not triple or the “village be filled with landaus and post chaises” because of our concert! But we do promise you the greatest oratorio ever written with which to begin your Christmas and, indeed, the next fifty years of the Ruddington and District Choral Society.” And in a week or two when I sit at the back of the church, having done my duty by selling tickets on the door, and my wife takes her place amongst the sopranos as they file to their places at the front of the church to begin the performance I will, undoubtedly, reflect on the history of this monumental work. I'll think of the men removing their swords in Dublin; the ladies being very immodest by not having hoops in the skirts; and the village of Church Langton filling up with "more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises" and wonder if I will be brave enought to stand up in the middle of the performance and shout to the contralto"Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee"! May be not! What I will undoubtedly reflect upon is how this work has been such a part of my life and indeed the life of the nation for so many years.
Handel as a wealthy and
successful man just before his death
And, this weekend, as Advent began, we once again switched on our CD player and listened again to the Messiah and to the other great music signalling the start of Christmas.  As we hurtled up the M6 motorway last weekend, the Messiah’s musical message filled our car. Music while you move, at speeds that would have terrified Mr Handel – he could never have dreamed of such a thing, in even his wildest dreams! The Messiah, I have, no doubt, will fill our lounge, again, in a week or two when we put up our Christmas decorations. What would Handel have thought of that – his music being relayed electronically and instantly available on little silver discs in homes throughout the world!  And when he wrote his masterpiece I don’t think that he ever could have forecast the impact that it would have over hundreds of years in tiny village halls and churches like St Peter’s Church Langton and St Peter’s Ruddington (they are only a few miles apart) and in great concert halls throughout the world. I don’t expect he could have ever believed that audiences would stand to attention – even in cities like far off Florence - two hundred and fifty years after his death when his “Halleluiah Chorus” was sung. I don’t suppose that he could have ever have imagined that for many, like me, the opening bars of the Messiah would signal, that Christmas is again with us. What a wonderful heritage he – and other composers (yes, including the Beach Boys!) - have left us! Maybe, on reflection Handel knew what he was doing when he inscribed his masterpiece SDG - Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory".