Today’s post is a guest post from Margaret, a blogger friend of mine from England. She blogs at From Pyrenees to Pennines. I first began reading Margaret’s blog several years ago when she and her husband lived in southwestern France. They moved home to England and I love reading of her exploits. I don’t recall how I found her, but I did, and I am ever grateful for the sunshine and joy that reading provides. There is nothing like an English Christmas, nothing. Thank you Margaret, keep Making the Days Count.
“He who sings scares away his woes.” ― Miguel de Cervantes
There’s a programme on British radio called ‘Desert Island Discs’, which has been running regularly since 1942. Just about everyone fancies being on it, and if you’ve made a name for yourself as an actor, a politician, an academic, a musician, a journalist, a physician, a TV personality, a sportsperson …. whatever, really, you may just get your chance. For 40 minutes, the ‘castaway’ for the week has to imagine themselves washed up on a desert island, with only 8 gramophone records (how quaint that sounds) of their choice, one luxury with no practical use, and one book, together with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. On air, they have the chance to talk about themselves, and more importantly, and just as revealingly, the opportunity to choose the 8 pieces of music that may have to last them for the rest of their lives.
What would I choose? The list I occasionally idly compose in my head varies wildly, according to my mood. But what I observe is that it’s always dominated by the human voice. My list always includes some of the great sacred masses by the likes of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. There’ll be some traditional music, maybe from Africa or India, and some ‘blasts from the past’ of my teenage years in the 1960s. The voices range from the pure clear notes of children, through elegant, warm and melodious female voices, to resonant deeper male tones. It’s hard to think of a single musical instrument with such range or versatility.
And washed upon my desert island, aside from listening to my recordings, what else would I be doing? Well, singing for sure. I don’t have the sort of voice that anyone would want to have in a top-flight choir….. or any choir, really. I read music only very insecurely. Yet you won’t find me missing from our weekly choir practice unless I really, really can’t get there.
We’re engaged from the first moment we arrive. We pat our faces and our bodies awake, stamping our feet rhythmically, or giving each other impromptu massages. We practice rounds and play musical games with notes from the highest to the lowest to get our voices mobilised. And we sing. We sing in canon, we sing in parts. We learn that sometimes the hardest thing to do is to sing well in unison: there’s nowhere to hide.
Nicky’s in charge of us, and I can’t think what kind of title to give her. She enthuses us; she won’t accept less than our best; she generates an atmosphere in which we all trust one another – our false notes will be forgiven and we’ll even be persuaded to be the sole singer of a line or two of song. She’s the one who finds pieces none of us knows, from Africa to Finland, to lesser-known Gospel songs. She’s the one who hunts out unfamiliar pieces from the English repertoire. And this is the one I’ll share with you today. It’s Christmas song, but a secular one, sung at table at Queen’s College, Oxford. Here’s ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’
During that hour or so on Thursday evening, we forget our woes and day-to-day worries. We open our throats, and joyfully, we sing. American philosopher William James summed it up perfectly:
‘I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing’.