15 December, 2019

“Think on these things”: A night of mystery, profundity and exquisite music in Ruddington




Picture courtesy of Michael Overbury
The audience that filled St Peter's Church in Ruddington for the Ruddington and District Choral Society's Christmas concert last night had arrived on a bitterly cold December evening, the rain increasingly beating down. As they came through the door to buy their tickets they shook the rain from their coats, wiped their faces with handkerchiefs, and some anxiously looked back into the night and grimly forecast "This lot could well turn to sleet or snow by the time we go home!" In the event, this was all rather prophetic since one of the wonderful readings we were to hear later in the evening was TS Elliott's The Journey of the Magi the opening lines of which are " A cold coming we had of it, Just the worse time of the year...." ! There were warm greetings and smiles aplenty but it was not the most auspicious start to the concert advertised as "A Celebration of Christmas". All, however, were glad to be in the warmth of the church on such a night and so clutching their programmes, they scurried away to find their seats.  Little did we know, however, that we were in for an evening, the music, words and the atmosphere of which would warm not only our fingers and toes but would refresh and warm our souls, make us feel human again and dispel all thoughts of the inclement weather outside! 

The concert began with a reading from the Gospel of St. John (Ch1 v 1-14). It beautifully set the scene for the evening, speaking of the great mystery,  awe and wonder of the Christmas story:



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.

And as I listened to these ancient, great, so well known and powerful words my mind was taken over by some other words - the last three verses of John Betjeman’s great poem “Christmas” which seems to echo St.John’s words from the Bible and asks a profound question about the nature, mystery and relevance of Christmas. Although Betjeman’s great work did not appear in last night’s Christmas Concert I am absolutely sure that everyone who performed or sat entranced in the audience thought on these things, so profound (yes, that is the right word) was the event. Betjeman wrote:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

And so the concert begins!
Betjeman wrote his great work in 1954; it speaks of the very essence of Christmas. In these 21st century days when our annual commercialised Christmas “binge” threatens the true meaning of the religious festival and great nativity story and where cheap “tat” goes hand in hand with greed and excess it is a salutary reminder of better, more worthy things. Just over a decade before (1942) Betjeman put pen to paper, however, his great friend the composer Benjamin Britten had composed his equally profound, mysterious and exquisite Christmas work A Ceremony of Carols. Britten’s work was the centrepiece of last night’s wonderful Concert. Its origins are strange and worthy of repeating.

In the winter of 1941- 42 Britten and his partner and musical associate Peter Pears were returning home from the USA to the war torn UK. The only passage they could get was on a small Swedish tramp steamer that would take almost a month to cross the Atlantic. The weather was bad and there was the constant danger of attack from German U-boats. Before leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten visited a second-hand book store and there bought a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. Britten later confessed this was pass the time and take his mind off the worry of the potential dangers of the crossing. On reading the poems, however, the germ of a musical idea formed in his mind and resulted in the composer spending much of his time on board composing – in, according to Peter Pears, “...a tiny, ill lit and foul smelling cabin next door to the boat’s refrigeration unit...”. The result of Britten’s labours on that trans-Atlantic trip were two exceptionally fine choral pieces – amongst the greatest in English music: The Hymn to St. Cecilia (based on a text by poet W. H. Auden), and what we heard from the Ruddington Choral Society last night, A Ceremony of Carols  based upon the works Britten found in that second hand book of verse. The “carols” are largely the product of 15th and 16th century writers, most of whom are anonymous.  Wonderfully, they retain their unique flavour as a result of Britten's sensitive and extensive use of old English language.

Musically, Britten had been studying the harp with view to perhaps writing a harp concerto and consequently he used some of his ideas and scored A Ceremony of Carols for treble voices & harp. Last night the audience sat spellbound as young harpist Kathryn Mason delicately and beautifully accompanied the choir - and later in the programme earned a huge round of applause for her delightful rendering of Sleigh Ride. The sheer beauty of Britten’s composition was in evidence, too, in the solo movements sung by Soprano Georgina Podd – her clarity, the pure sound and her nuanced voice exactly right for both the work and the occasion. Later in the programme her solo singing of the first verse of Once In Royal David’s City  would, in other circumstances, be described as a “show stopper” – but in the atmosphere and programme of last night, it’s simple beauty was almost overpowering – certainly, it brought a lump to my throat.

Britten’s work is not easy; it will tax the best of choirs but under musical director Paul Hayward the R&DCS were again on top form, not only getting it musically “right” but bringing out the delicate, rich and yet haunting and mysterious nature of the work and of the Christmas story itself. As the work unfolded we were taken back to an ancient age – far from Santa’s grotto, Rudolf’s red nose or Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.  On a bitter night of wind and driving rain in Ruddington it was easy, as we listened to the choir, to Georgina Podd and to Kathryn Mason, to be taken back to some distant past and to imagine a weary and homeless couple on their long and hard journey; a poor carpenter and his wife, “great with child”, the ancient equivalents of our modern day refugees; it was a small step to picture a cold and bleak stable and thence to ponder the  great and awesome mysteries of the shepherds, the kings and the angels imagined by Betjeman in his poem and to ask the question that Betjeman asked "And is it true, this most tremendous tale of all....For if it is...… No carolling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells, Can with this single Truth compare...." 




The whole programme for the evening was wonderfully constructed. The audience carols were full of warmth and Christmas cheer but especially when the choir’s voices soared in the descants of O Come, All Ye Faithful and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing  they became great celebrations, rousing reaffirmations of the Christmas message to balance the profundity of Britten’s work. Throughout the night the accompaniment of Michael Overbury on the organ was, as always, both a joy and a wonderment. His own exquisite composition Of one that is so Fair and Bright gave the choir not only the opportunity to demonstrate their (and Michael Overbury’s) musical talents but also got the second half of the concert off to a delightful start whilst at the same time continuing the night’s theme of the mystery and (to use a much over used – and today misused word) the awesome  magic of the Christmas story. I sat delighted as the choir showed their joyous musicality and rich textured, layered sound when they performed In Dulci Jubilo and We wish you a Merry Christmas but I also sat mesmerised, overcome and pondering the ills of humanity in our current world as the haunting and poignant Coventry Carol filled St Peter’s. Can there be a more timeless expression of the Nativity than in the Coventry Carol – conjuring up the bleak stable, the new born child, Herod’s rage and the Slaughter of the Innocents but at the same time telling of Mary’s lullaby of love for her new born son and the dangers of the world that he was born into. As I listened I could not but help think of its relevance in today’s world as we witness the tragedy of Syrian children caught up in that terrible never ending conflict, or the “lost” faces that I saw the other night on TV as I watched the news and saw film of the conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh which are filled with thousands of Rohingya people fleeing from the horrors of Myanmar. The story of the Nativity may well be two millennia old but its theme has a dreadful reality and resonance in today’s world.
Musical maestro Michael Overbury at the organ

And in between all this we enjoyed some wonderfully thoughtful readings. From St John’s Gospel  we ranged through William Blake’s Cradle Song, T.P. Garrison’s The Annuciation, T.S. Elliott’s (another friend of Britten and Betjeman) wonderfully evocative The Journey of the Magi and to round things off Paul Hayward put down his conductor’s baton for a few minutes and gave a splendid reading of the gently humorous (and one of the many highlights of the night) Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich. The readings were all an absolute joy to listen to,  each beautifully read and completely at one with the musical contributions.

This was not, however, just a Christmas entertainment. It was an evening to enjoy it is true, but, like Betjeman’s poem and Britten’s Ceremony of Carols,  it was an evening to stop us all in our tracks. It was a programme to make us take a step back from the mad scramble that has come to be our modern Christmas where drunken parties abound, cheap instantly forgettable Christmas drivel is piped through our shopping malls, greed and excess fill our ambitions, television channels pump out the latest Hollywood blockbuster horror film or mindlessly banal animated cartoon box office hit and too often fill this great Christian festival with loud, garish and often innuendo trash, calling it "family entertainment". Yet, in today's world even the BBC  can find little or no place for piety or at least a nodding acquaintance with the Christian roots of the season. I often wonder what would the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, think? And what, too, would  Betjeman think; in his poem Christmas he quaintly and delicately observed in 1954 that “Provincial Public Houses blaze” - what would that great and gentle poet laureate  write today? Yet in this mad 21st century Christmas season we have a world where homelessness is on the rise, food banks for the hungry thrive, man’s inhumanity to man too often knows no bounds, and words and ideas like decency, respect, kindness and truth are, it often seems, long forgotten often disparaged ideals. But, last night’s concert gently said "stop, pause for reflection, think on more important things". It made us all ponder other, more important but often over looked, or worse, forgotten human virtues. For me at least the programme reminded me of the words of St Paul in this Letter to the Philippians: “...... whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Last night’s concert – to use a modern phrase – “ticked all these boxes”!
Paul Hayward captivates the audience with the reading of 
John Julius Norwich's "Twelve Days of Christmas"

In these troubled times for our nation and the world can there be a more important or powerful imperative than the need for mankind to reflect upon these virtues – to explore what it is to be human. Surely, if the Christmas story has a message it is not to spend Christmas in a drunken haze but to ponder the humanity and all that it implies of the birth in bleak stable of a small child. Thankfully I, and I suspect many more who walked out of St Peter’s at half past nine last night and into the cold December Ruddington air, reflected upon what they had heard and what it had all meant; and in these troubled times that can be no bad thing.

In previous reviews I have praised the leadership of Paul Hayward and accompanist Michael Overbury at Ruddington – the effect of these two wonderful musicians has, in my view, galvanised the choir making R&DCS a real force to be reckoned within the musical world and life of Nottinghamshire. Under Hayward and Overbury’s guidance  the choir have ranged from Rutter to Rheinberger, Britten to Bach, Shearing to Schubert, Haydn to Handel and from Mendelssohn to Mozart – and all points in between – and have dealt with all these composers and works with aplomb. The choir has both widened its repertoire and at the same time improved musically and chorally in leaps and bounds. They, their leader and their accompanist have much to be proud of. Long may it continue.
Take a well deserved bow Paul Hayward
Thank you Ruddington & District Choral Society, thank you Paul Hayward, thank you Michael Overbury and all the other performers who did so much to not only provide an eloquent and haunting musical evening but to also reconnect me with the important things of Christmas and my basic humanity. 

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