Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

Notes from the choir, 20 November 2013

By Nicholas M Tolhurst


I am not known to be a cruel person, but on a choir bus travelling to Port Macquarie, someone remarked (it was a tenor I believe) that John Rutter had quite severe dementia. To which I promptly and regrettably retorted: ‘Yes, he keeps writing the same music he wrote 20 years ago’.

If you are a choir person, none of the above needs explaining and if you are not, I shall only excuse my cruel remark on the grounds that I was crammed in the back of the bus and it was being driven by a male alto.

Someone ought to convene a choir called the Bad Pennies, for people like me keep turning up in choirs all over the place. We had our starts in university choral societies, or ‘UCS’. Thus Melbourne has MUCS, Monash has MONUCS and Sydney and Adelaide—you get the drift. Choir joke: just imagine if a university were established in Frankston? It would, of course, be known as the Frangers University Choral Society, which is another choir type joke and are you getting the somewhat puerile flavour of choral humour?

Which brings to mind the school choir I sang in as a treble. We sang lusty numbers like The Smugglers Song, words by Kipling with substitutions from the treble line, e.g. instead of ‘brandy for the parson’ we would sing ‘frangers for the parson’. You can see where it all starts. Our choir director would never have seen, let alone touched a condom, or ‘franger’ as they are colloquially known in this town, so although he glared, he knew not why.

And this was 1968! We also covered great pre- (Great) War classics like Westering Home and Waiata Poi by Alfred Hill. I have selected a delightful amateur rendition on YouTube for the excellent diction of the singer Cyril Kelleway rather than the disturbingly louche interpretation of Gracie Fields who places undue emphasis on the repetitive lines of ‘tiny ball on end of string’. But listen to her if you must. You can imagine how well this song went over with a choir of 12 year olds.

And you’ll understand a little more why choristers of around my generation and surprisingly, younger generations, are so clannishly, jolly hockey sticksy, high-browedly smutty. Blame the choral directors. Blame the Anglican Church. Since then we’ve had Britten and Rutter in the middle of the century (in every way) and lots of the likes of Mortensen and Whitacre to add tang to the repertoire.

Rutter and ‘tang’ are not words I would often use in the same sentence, but he does have it in him to be challenging.  Choristry is giving a performance of Christmas works on Saturday 7 December at 7:30 pm at St John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate in Melbourne. There may be carols, but there will be no singalongs. Save that for our gig at the Stonnington Carols.

Director Trevor Jones has chosen a fairly populist program, including Rutter’s When Icicles Hang. I groaned, but I am loyal and being in a choir means just that, being there for the long haul. However, as Trevor takes us through the works in their minutiae, I learn this is Rutter I can like.  Rutter wrote ‘Icicles’ on commission from Russell Burgess* and the Wandsworth School Boys Choir in 1973, when the choir was quite possibly the star choir of its type in Britain. (Sadly, Burgess and the Grammy Award winning choir are no more.)

Happily, Rutter’s choice of texts drive right to the heart of schoolboy humour, starting with Shakespeare’s song from Loves Labour Lost, with the opening lines: ‘When icicles hang by the wall / And Dick the shepherd blows his nail’ and later ‘While greasy Joan doth keel the pot’. The sniggering echoes to this day. Classic choir joke stuff.

Other texts are Thomas Campion’s Winter Nights, and Shakespeare’s Blow, blow, thou winter wind from As you like it. All sniggering is long forgot by the end of ‘Icicles’, as Rutter has delivered some exceptionally crafty writing for young voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass—the whole magilla) plus a fiendish, modal piano accompaniment. It’s all a challenge to sing and play and will be a rewarding listen.

I’m curious as to Rutter’s choice of melody for ‘Blow, blow’ and this is the reason for the cruel joke about him self-plagiarising, for he has completely lifted the tune from Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s Here’s that rainy day. I’m directing you to Nat King Cole’s performance, because he’s so wonderfully slow and steps out the opening theme so beautifully. Rutter has quoted the opening bars in full.  It fits the lyrics ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’, but it’s kind of maddening. I can’t stop hearing the ‘original’, yet Rutter’s settings in the other pieces are as spiky and almost atonal as anything I could wish—utterly unRutterly. It’s curious.

If you are curious, come and hear the whole lot.

*Russell Burgess has a negligible net profile, not even on Wikipedia. Curious.


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