We managed about a three minute family hush in my house on Christmas Eve to listen to my essay on ‘Christmas Loves’ for Arena. Christmas is often a complicated time, mood-wise, with the pressure of the short dark days weighing heavily on us, and I wanted to write something that reflected that conflicted state. And so I remembered a choir I used to sing in for years and tried to do it some justice; for me, my time in this choir was one of those long continuities in life that seemed so permanent that I found it difficult to process the realisation that this seeming continuity had become an epoch accessible only through memory. Strange the way things that are important to us are so often discarded without being given their proper moment.
And even gathering a coherent representative memory was difficult, so I fictionalised a bit, playing around with timelines and conflating different experiences, including a number of Christmas concerts we sang. As a focus I used one of my favourite choral pieces, and one that we often sang at our Christmas concerts, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. I was in the choir, on and off, from the age of 7 to the age of 26. That included two practices a week, and with them I went to Wales, Belgium, Poland, Italy and Slovenia, as well as numerous festivals around Ireland. We sang songs in Irish, Hungarian, French, Italian, Latin, Middle English and German from sixteenth century polyphony to contemporary songs composed specifically for the choir. Many choirs use sheet music (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but we learnt all of our songs by heart. It was quite an education.
You can listen to the essay here
And here’s the text:
The lights are out in Rathmines Church. Its dome looms unseen above us. The air holds a chill long nurtured by thick walls and we shuffle in the wooden pews. We’re not here for mass, but for music.
The singers arrive, each holding a lantern, islands of light in the darkness. Their vocal line is as considered as their steps; the stark unison of plainchant. As they reach the altar steps the line divides in time with the melody, as a descant emerges and the small choir forms two rows on the steps. They are singing Hodie E Christus Natus Est, the first song in Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Even as a sulky teenage non-believer, playing Snake on my Nokia 3210, I’m intrigued.
A year later, I’ve joined the choir and we’re practicing in the hall of St. Louis Primary School. The dark-haired harpist chews gum speculatively as our conductor teaches us, patiently, by ear. We’re having trouble with the timings in Britten’s Wolcum Yole. The air is full of coughing and the women in the choir – ranging in age from 16 to 40-something – wear their scarves high up around their mouths. A sarky comment to my friend is rewarded by a shove from a girl two rows back. I shoot her a filthy look. It’s late. We’re tired. No one feels ready for the concert tomorrow night. Our conductor hammers the tricky passage on the old off-key piano.
We begin the song again.
The next night the jostling and filthy looks have subsided. The choir looks out as one into the dark recesses of the church. Our conductor raises his hands and we begin to sing. The words to the carols we sing are taken from Middle English poems and I enjoy wrapping my mouth around them. Their onomatopoeia seems to conjure a channel between past and present. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe what the authors of these poems believed, I can get behind the democratic spirit of Wolcum Yole – a carol welcoming all to a celebration. There is no rose, with its haunting accompaniment of single harp notes reimagines Mary as a rose holding all the universe within her: in this rose conteinèd was Heaven and earth in litel space. The image hangs in the dark air of the church like a stained glass window. Then there’s the brilliantly skewed conceit of Deo Gracias, which gives thanks for Adam’s sin in taking the apple, because without sin there would be no Christmas. This intensely human logic makes the unknown writer of this poem feel alive to me, in spite of the centuries dividing us.
And then there’s the pleasure of the music, of being wrapped in polyphony. The air in the dome above us softens and sustains the sound like a piano pedal, so that even the highest notes stay true. When one singer needs to take a breath, her part is carried by the singers around her. Each note, when sung properly, fills your head and body until everything else is forgotten; it is a filament that must bind with the weave of sound. The experience is at once mindless and deeply considered, perhaps the purest expression of creativity within constraint. As we finish and the echoes spiral around the church, the deep contentment of song settles in us all.
The choir is gone now; our conductor, the much-missed Brian O’Dubhghaill, passed away in 2013. There’s very little I miss about my teenage years, but every December a certain quality of light on my evening walk home has me scanning my iPod for Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, so I can fall through that stained glass window into my own past, and the many past lives that stretch behind it.