THE COOKIE JAR
It is quite nice to be asked to put your hand in the cookie jar and pull out your favourite or most memorable piece of music especially since there is so much in the jar now.
I was pleased when an epic biblical piece emerged telling the story of the Jews in captivity. Not for us the version popularised by Boney M in 1978 to a very catchy tune and using the words from Psalm 137 almost verbatim. This was of course By the rivers of Babylon. That though would have been too easy and I can just see the front row bopping along to the rhythm!!
No – the piece chosen was the far more compelling version by Charles Gounod entitled By Babylons Wave. The power of the piece lay in the words: first of all the lament in captivity, ‘How shall we raise thy song so Holy far from our fatherland’; the pride and memory of the homeland, ‘Jerusalem if we forget thee’; the threat to the captors, ‘Woe unto thee Babylon the mighty’ – this does not sound much of a threat now but when accompanied by the wrath of God, as happened in those days, would have been quite significant; and finally the anger in the retribution against the captor, ‘In that day shall the babes be taken and dashed against the stones’. Powerful stuff.
Gounod wrote many religious works including The Saint Cecelia Mass and a version of Ave Maria. His best known work is Goethe’s Faust and his version of Romeo and Juliet is highly regarded.
By Babylons Wave was given to us as part of the Yorkshire Cancer Charity Concert repertoire for massed male voice choirs when we were still in our early days as a choir. Many of us had never seen a piece of music of this complexity and it was quite daunting at first although we would grow to like it later. It was also obvious that we would never learn this piece on a Tuesday evening and help was needed but from where we knew not.
Salvation came in the Baptist Church Hall in Golcar where we were invited to join with other choirs in rehearsal. Not only was this outside the Holme Valley but I for one had never set foot in a Baptist enclave and went prepared with wings and flippers lest the weight of the presence was overwhelming.
We made our way in on the first night and assembled in rough sections amongst a good crowd of choristers. A charming man took to the stage and suggested that we just sing it through before starting to tune the many voices – each of which carried their own persuasion.
Of course we did as bid and by the time we had finished the look on his face had changed. Maybe the close proximity of the concert date in Huddersfield Town Hall bothered him?
This bad look lasted only a very short time – then we saw the very best of Roy Firth, a good musician with the patience of Job. He assumed correctly that we knew very little and set about explaining first the story, because some had never read psalm 137, and second the mysteries of the tune line by line .
It was all a slow process but somehow his enthusiasm made us more attentive and we began to make some sense.
However by 10 pm each Thursday evening we were clock-watching since the route home passed the Wills ‘o Nats where we would find welcome pints of beer and good company.
The first performance was to be in Huddersfield Town Hall. It was my first appearance on stage in a choir and the first time I’d met Ray Burkinshaw. But all did not go to plan as, having planned to be on the back, I found myself on the front row with Ray. The instruction to lead on from the back had been taken to mean fill the back rows first and this was quite wrong but irrecoverable. Then someone lifted the lid on the grand piano and all of a sudden half the audience were hidden from view! Blessed relief.
The performance complete we entered a pub walking ten feet tall and went over every note again. A night of many firsts and a great piece of music. The second performance was to be at The Albert Hall – it held no fears for us now.
I thought that this was a worthy piece of music from which we learned much and got a greater satisfaction in bringing to the performance stage. There are many more of this ilk in my cookie jar.