Christmas Descants

The descant reigns supreme at Christmas. The melody which soars above the rest of the hymn in the final verse transforms the collective praise between congregation and choir into an intense moment of triumph and joy. The descant amplifies the theatre of the celebration. The sense of drama is palpable. If it’s a particularly good descant, it’s almost impossible not to sing along. And, if you’re a chap, you may even momentarily mourn the breaking of your own voice.

From the composer’s perspective, descants are the ultimate challenge. An eager crowd awaits the simple addition to an already favourite carol. Emotions demand to be satisfied. Spirits want to be raised to the most respectable of climaxes.

It’s also an opportunity to indulge in the most intense and fundamental of compositional techniques: four part harmony. Taking an already established melody and enhancing it. The composer takes the congregation to a different place. This is music in it’s purest sense: a journey embarked upon through melody and harmony. Ringing a melody dry to illicit the most visceral of emotional reactions.

The payback for the composer is the calling card he leaves: it’s his name credited, and one of the most famous and persistent is David Willcocks’ descant for Oh Come All Ye Faithful. There is nothing more exhilerating than standing in a choir staring out at a congregation in front of you and hearing this descant ring out all around.

But there’s another aspect to Willcocks’ arrangement of Oh Come All Ye Faithful. The verse which follows afterwards. Just when you thought the upper-limit of your innermost desires had been reached, so the fourth verse kicks in with a crawling bassline and the promise of heart-stopping chord shortly before the final refrain.

But that’s me. That’s what turns my legs to jelly every single time I hear it at Christmas. What’s yours?

Poor old John Rutter

The Sans Day Carol (arragned by composer John Rutter and sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge University) is a festive favourite of mine. It’s title roots it in Christmas, so too its simple joyful melody which embeds itself in the mind of the listener and insodoing defines the meaning of the word ‘Christmas’.

I first sang the Sans Day Carol when I was a member of the school ‘Junior Choir’ during our school carol service thirty years ago in the cathedral of St Edmundsbury. The event tapped probably established my borderline obsession with things ‘looking right and proper’. In what was a considerable choreographed event, the Junior Choir processed in from the choir stalls while the rest of the School choir – number 200 as I recall – processed up the nave at the same time. Everyone congregated in the middle of the Cathedral.

It was a dramatic sight. For an hour and a half on a snowy Friday afternoon, all eyes in the congregation were on us in the massed choir. And for those of us who craved attention, that was a special experience.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Up until that point, the choirs had rehearsed the Sans Day Carol on Friday nights after school. Junior Choir congregated upstairs for half of the rehearsal while the senior rehearsed in ‘The Old Hall’ downstairs. Both groups joined to run through the music to the service accompanied by a twangy grand piano in the corner.

As end of term beckoned so too the strange Friday when lessons were abandoned, replaced by a final assembly, and then a bus to nearby Bury St Edmunds for a special final rehearsal before the afternoon service. The rest of the school – 600 or so – would join us for that. Those of us who sang basked in our day-long ‘special status’. It would all be different at the beginning of the next term, for sure.

And the year we sang the Sans Day Carol for the first time, I recall being blown away at how completely different an experience it was singing along to the cathedral organ compared to that out-of-tune piano we’d suffered and got used to for so many weeks during rehearsals. It was – to coin a phrase – the icing on the cake.

As I progressed through school, so I moved on up into the ‘Senior Choir’ and the ‘Chapel Choir’. The Carol Service was always the high point. And while there are many other pieces which remind me of those magical end-of-term pieces of theatre, none transport me back as John Rutter’s arrangement of Sans Day Carol does.

And there’s a reason for that. It’s not just the power of memory. It’s not just that the music floats over the dramatic backdrop of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It is because Rutter’s arrangement – and that of his music we sang in subsequent years – is so much fun to sing. Had he written something quite dull, then it wouldn’t have been enjoyable to sing and it wouldn’t have been burnt into my memory.

The inevitable shame is that the very accessibility of his music – the almost democratic nature of it – is the very thing which musical snobs criticise him for. Melodic writing accompanied by the kind of chord progressions found in jazz and pop music – like Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (below) makes his music mainstream.

And mainstream is bad in classical music. If it’s written to please the soul – or indeed if the listener knows fairly confidently that his soul will be warmed by anything Rutter has written before it’s played for the first time – then it’s validity as a piece of music is somehow lessened. Which seems a great shame.

All this regardless of the fact that every time Rutter’s music is performed or purchased, the composer gets a royalty. He’s a composer who makes money by giving his listeners something they want. So he’s a good businessman too.

I know this because I often find myself straddling that line between thinking ‘Oooh it’s Christmas, I must here the Sans Day Carol’ and looking over my shoulder, wondering whether people think it’s a bit naff.

Then I remind myself. There are gradations. Where Andre Rieu’s success with the chocolate box album Forever Vienna makes my blood run cold, John Rutter’s compositional style succeeds in rooting itself in a collective experience – the very essence of Christmas itself.

Will there be a time when Rutter’s music is not sneered upon? It seems unlikely to me now. Mind you, I remember how me and my University pals used to snort with derision at our friend Ian’s inexplicable obsession with Abba long before the Abba revival swept the world.

You never know. He might just achieve the respect he justly deserves.

North Point’s iBand Christmas Medley

Here’s something a little unusual for Christmas. And, seeing as it first broke on to the internet on 10 December it is in internet terms, a little old.

Even so, it’s cute. And cute is important at Christmas. There can never be enough cuteness at Christmas. And these chappies from the North Point iBand are just that. Yes, they’re all bouncing around playing their Apple products, using apps available via the iTunes store. They’re doing it because they can.

By far the best is the opening track – not immediately Christmassy until you get to the main melody.

Nice work. God rest ye merry gentlemen of the North Point iBand.

Terrible jobs: Orchestral fixing

Pity the orchestral fixer, a person you’re rarely going to see or hear from unless you’re a musician being booked for a concert or indeed a manager moaning about the poor quality of players booked to play in your band.

Orchestral fixers – those with a database stuffed full of players’ names and telephone numbers – are vital. They’re also dispensable. They are integral to the contract which exists between orchestral management and the audience. Ultimately it is them who guarantee there’s an orchestra there to follow the conductor’s beat. Insodoing they almost always find themselves responding to the most ridiculous suite of problems (normally brought on by the very people they’ve booked in the first place) in a variety of near comical situations in a supposedly calm and collected way. They have to be all things to all people. Pity them.

I seriously doubt they get paid massive amounts of money either to offset the hell of the job. I can’t believe that the arts has changed that much since I did the job in 1997. I certainly wasn’t paid that much then. And I had an even tougher situation to deal with. None of the musicians were being paid.

Sure, they got travel, expenses and accommodation thrown in when they trecked to the East Suffolk coast. They also got the opportunity to work with a wide range of international conductors too. That was the ‘USP’. You’re a student. You come here. You get to do a gig with a conductor. You won’t get paid, but we will lay on everything for you.

It makes my blood run cold just thinking about it now. One memory seems persistent.

Picture this. A fifty-odd strong band all doing rehearsals for a high profile concert somewhere in the wilds of east Suffolk. Rehearsals finish early on a Friday evening. One more day to go before the concert on the Sunday afternoon.

When I arrive at the office early the following morning I pick up a fax message (remember them?) from a double-bass player. It was something like this:

“I will not be able to attend the remainder of the rehearsals or the concert on Sunday afternoon. I have been offered a weekend job in a shop in central London and have decided to take it. The job starts tomorrow (Saturday). I have left my double bass in the rehearsal room. I wonder whether you would be able to look after it for me until Sunday morning when I will be able to come back to collect it.”

I was – as I’m sure you’ll appreciate – seething when I read this. Not only had I just received what seemed like a perfunctory ‘note’ – so very final, so spineless it seemed to me – but I now had to find another double-bass player who a) was available b) could get to the rehearsal venue in time, ie 20 minutes c) could do the concert and d) didn’t mind not being paid. Quite a tall order.

Oh and I had a double-bass to look after for the errant player. And I had a conductor to placate who was – I need not mention his name – quite particular about everybody being in rehearsals all of the time. If they weren’t it was me who got it in the neck.

I rang round loads of people. An air of resignation had long since past over me. I knew deep down I wasn’t going to find anyone in time. That missing bass player would be like an albatross around my neck. Him not being present in the concert would detract from the finished product. It would be less than perfect. And aren’t audiences after perfection? It would be like one wall in a newly decorated room not being quite finished off properly.

So, in lieu of a player, I dealt with things in the next best way. We locked up the double bass in the safety of the instrument store (for insurance purposes it was vital we did this anyway) and waited for our bass player to return to pick it up the following morning.

When I arrived at 9.00am I discovered not only was the bass player there but his parents as well. They’d driven from London. They must have got up very early.

“Can I collect my bass please? Where is it?” he asked.

“It’s in the instrument store. I can arrange for it to be unlocked,” I smiled charmingly. “In the meantime, could you just drop in to see the conductor for me?”

“Oh?” he asked, “Why?”

“He’ll need to know why you weren’t at the rehearsal yesterday and who’s deputising for you during the concert this afternoon.”

I didn’t join the meeting. It seemed inappropriate. Unneccessary. Redundant.

He emerged soon after, retrieved his bass and left.

Looking back on it now, I’m not entirely happy with the way things worked out. By and large I have reasonably high expectations – perhaps too high? If you say yes to something then you should stick with it. And that might be one of the reasons I was never any good at the job because I wasn’t flexible enough. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, I can’t believe orchestral management has changed that much in the intervening years. So, next time you go to a concert pity the unsung hero of orchestral management: the orchestral fixer.

Being a musician … at Christmas

My name is Pete, and I’m a musician.

No, not the glamorous, Top Of The Pops, Wembley Stadium type of musician, but the other kind, the kind you never hear of, who are in a constant state of scratching around desperately trying to make ends meet, whilst being shafted by car insurance companies who think we’re all like the first kind. We’re not. We go about our business like most normal people do, except there’s a tendency to be driving long distances at times most ‘civilians’ are asleep.

I say ‘scratching around’, it’s not quite like that at this time of year. In fact, it’s a little bit ridiculous, at least for me at the moment. Recession? I’ve never known it so good. Everyone wants music at Christmas. I’ve turned away more work this month than I’ve been able to take on. Where was it all in the summer when I stared bewildered at the bank balance wondering how it was all going to add up. This Christmas, however, is unlike most. Most of the time I would currently be ensconced in the world of pantomime. It’s bizarre, it’s other worldy and it’s quite unlike being in any other show at any other time of year. More relationships have failed at Christmas than any other time.

It’s strange on a number of levels. If you think about it, there’s very little reference to Christmas in a pantomime, it just happens to happen at the same time of year.

Rehearsals start with a room full of strangers in mid-November and by early December you’re playing the same random selection of badly sung pop songs, and classic music hall hits twice a day to a room full of screaming primary school children who have no idea what’s going on but laugh at the slapstick and the fart gags.

You’re more often than not away from home and dealing with the freezing cold cheap digs with no Christmas decorations by drinking heavily with the same group of strangers who are in a similar position who you perform twelve shows a week with. Most provincial theatres aren’t really equipped for harsh winters and so you can move from freezing digs to freezing theatre to warm, enticing local pubs with strange opening hours.

It’s work though, essentially good work, so one tries not to complain. But it’s hard when you’re doing two shows on Christmas Eve, then driving hundreds of miles to celebrate Christmas in a cold house you’ve not been in for weeks, which therefore doesn’t have any decorations, crossing fingers that the pipes haven’t
frozen.

You wake up on Christmas Day morning, tired, confused and striving to not get too drunk because you know you have to get up at the crack of dawn on Boxing Day to drive back to the theatre to do another two shows, and endure the inevitable Secret Santa with aforementioned strangers and carry on doing two shows a day until you repeat the sorry process on New Years Eve, ready to be back doing another two shows on January 2nd.

By now, Christmas is long gone and you’re still doing two shows a day until mid-January, by which time the group of strangers aren’t strangers but have become rather strange and the whole thing a little bit sour.

By now all anyone talks about is how little work there is in January and February and how they’ve got a lovely rep job in Swindon for three weeks in April and how their agent is close to getting them on one of the big soaps.

The musicians meanwhile are deteriorating rapidly, their relationships failed, their dalliance with one of the dancers on the wane once they realise said dancer is joining a cruise ship for six months, on £300 per week and will effectively never be seen again.

More and more time is spent in the pub, which appears to stay open later and later as more of the fee gets spent on the local vinegary brew, and the musicians realise they’ll be back to Grade One instrumental teaching before they know it, except they’ll be a stone heavier, considerably more cynical and bitter than they had been in late November and with quite literally nothing to show financially for the eighty performances and therefore the literally hundreds of choruses of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” and “Amarillo”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love panto. It’s made me who I am, both good and bad. But not doing it this year has afforded me time to do all the other work I’d normally turn down. I’m still too busy to do anything Christmassy, other than dust the tree down and put it up much earlier than I’ve done in a decade.

And please, please understand me. I’m not complaining about being a musician. True, I don’t love it, but I much prefer it to anything else I could possibly think about doing. It’s just not quite as glamorous as some people make out. Especially at Christmas.

:: Pete Faint blogs at everyonesanidiot.wordpress.com