Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Carols, and lessons


As is the habit of my tribe, along the valley to the 13th Century Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem church we went again, in that Doomsday village that was home to Waleran the Hunter in Saxon times and after the Norman conquest, Payne de Turberville (later mentioned by Hardy in Tess) for traditional Christmas carols and lessons. What lessons. Once again it grates on the nerves to be told that seeking knowledge is a sin, something to be blamed on women, and serpents. The overall effect of the scattered readings was tachistoscopic: briefly illuminated observations fluttered like torn pages or snatches of overheard conversations, from which just about any story could be weaved, so long as birth was part of it.

In a break from tradition, the opening soprano solo of “Once in Royal David’s City” was sung with the singer facing the audience, not hiding modestly behind the South transept. I commended her afterwards. She replied: “I was asked to sing it as if I was a boy, but I decided to face the audience and sing it as a woman”. We discussed castratos, and decided against it.

The readings this year favoured youth, particularly the young boy who dispatched the text with fine diction and commendable briskness. Some of the more adult readers had been landed with limp modern transliterations which they found “not even grammatical”. They lamented that, in St James’s church, one could not read King James’s Bible. No reading compared to last year’s declamation of Isaiah 9: 6 (King James version) “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this”. It was recited from memory by a man who knew it would be his last reading, clenching his hands by his side, the better to proclaim the message. Those things live on in memory.

The sun shone into the little church, illuminating the vestments, the stone ogee arch above, and engendering some sense of the numinous. For reasons best known to the deity, the organist omitted the culminating last verse of one carol, leading to surprise and some pre-orgasmic disappointment. In a further dramatic move, one whole carol had to be abandoned, because the designated older man walked up to give the lesson prematurely. A tricky moment. With minimal hesitation the service moved swiftly on to the next carol, though because of that interpolation the collection plate then took everyone by surprise. The deletion of the previous carol was charitably judged an improvement, in that it lightened the strain on the vocal cords.

Then wine, things to eat, conversations with choristers, some fifty souls chattering in the tiny church, and then out down the winding path past the chest tombs into the winter sunshine.

Merry Christmas.


  1. "We discussed castratos, and decided against it." As entertainers, or as Christmas dinner?

    Merry Xmas to you too, Doc.

  2. Merry Christmas, and many thanks also for all your work on the blog this year. It's both a great resource and an inspiration.

    It's bizarre that someone asked the singer to hide and pretend she was a boy. Even the female sopranos with the most boyish voices (such as Emma Kirkby) are instantly recognizable as women.

    Have you ever heard the recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi? His Ave Maria is strangely moving, almost haunting.


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