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Music Notes

Our major event in the last few months has been the coming of James Grimwood our new Director of Music. The Autumn issue of The Bridge contained an article recounting his experiences and arrival in Marlow – well worth reading. Members of the congregation will have seen his rapid settling-in and establishment as part of the Church community.

I know he is looking forward with gentlemanly relish to tackling the music for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas, parts of the church year with an extraordinary wealth of rich music. The purpose of this article, however, is to mention some of the music and musical activities undertaken by the Church Choir over the last few months.

First, the people. Congratulations to Max and to Arthur for gaining Bishop’s Choristers’ Awards with high marks. We have said farewell to Issy now at university, but whom we hope still to see from time to time, alongside other recent leavers. Four chaps I knew as trebles when I joined All Saints Church 2½ years ago – Dan, Noah, Louis, and Sammy – have modulated to the tenors and basses to become Young Gentlemen, recently joined by Arthur. Between them they ensure that the back row remains capable of performing a substantial part of the Anglican church repertoire, both alone and with trebles.

Sadly I have to report that we are no longer capable of fielding a separate Boys’ Choir. The number of boys has dwindled to a point where the remaining boys could not be expected to carry the responsibility of singing a service unaided, and earlier this term we regretfully took the decision to reallocate their duties to the other choirs. This means that each choir (Senior Girls, Junior Girls, Gentlemen, Occasionals) now has a somewhat larger list of services to sing, and there are also now more ‘said’ services without a choir.

At this point, I’d like to pay tribute to that stalwart band of All Saints Church, The Occasional Singers (the ‘Occs’), who unfailingly step in when the formal choirs are unavailable. My thanks to them for singing, in particular, during the summer holidays.

However I am glad to report that James is recruiting more youngsters as part of his school work, and in time we shall hear the results from the choir stalls. Let me reiterate here our plea for more singers, both children and adults. If you know of anyone suitable, or you yourself are interested, please contact James or me urgently! However there remains a worrying point: without boys now, who will be the tenors and basses of the future?

Second, the music. I am sure that many will still remember Martin Seymour’s final evensong in which we sang the Evening Service in F by George Dyson and the anthem ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks’ by Herbert Howells (two of Martin’s favourite pieces). New music since then includes a very mellifluous setting by Maurice Bevan of the hymn ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ (with a rather nice line in the left hand for the organ’s trumpet stop), a recent Magnificat by Robert Quinney who is currently Director of Music at New College Oxford, a Nunc Dimittis by Matthew Owens who is about to take up the post of Director of Music at Belfast Cathedral, two short anthems by William Byrd, and an Evening Service by the 17th century Benjamin Rogers. Additionally, in July we sang Charles Wood’s ‘O thou the central orb’, which was already known by the Gentlemen from days of yore. Of necessity, we must balance ‘new’ music against well-known music to make the best use of rehearsal time and the abilities of the various choristers. Judicious repetition of music in services helps to fix it in the minds of Choir and congregation alike.

Turning now to rehearsals on Thursdays and before services. A part of many rehearsals is given over to practising singing the psalms and canticles to Anglican Chants. The Chant is a seven-bar long formula, usually containing ten consecutive chords, often turned into a pair by expansion to fourteen bars and twenty chords. In the Anglican liturgy, we sing each verse of a psalm to one of these Chants of seven bars, and frequently treat the canticles – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – in the same way. The art of the Editor of the Choir’s printed version is to compress the varying number of syllables in each verse of the psalm to the tenchord formula, by way of standard printed indications such as apostrophes and what appear to be decimal points, while making the result sound natural with respect to the stresses, pauses and overall sense of the language.

The art of the singer is to sing all this in a suitably natural manner, with a fairly rapid flow of words maintaining clear diction. To do this our quick-reading singer has to interpret the Editor’s indications accurately and musically; the art of the director is to try to get everyone to do the same thing at the same time – organist included. There is rarely enough time to learn a psalm in such a way as to rely on rote-learning or memory: the aim is to keep the choir alive to interpreting the indications precisely and in a co-ordinated way, and to do it spontaneously in a service. As new choristers emerge, these skills have to be newly taught, and with existing choristers they need to be continually refreshed. As is so often the case, long toil in rehearsal might become only a small part of the service.

The Choir recently took part in the annual Memorial Service for All Souls, in which we recall the departed. We sang Simon Lole’s penetrating anthem ‘As the Father has loved me’, and two movements from Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Requiem. The Town Council made a request that the Choir should sing at the Marlow Town Council Ceremony of Remembrance at the War Memorial on 10 th November, for which we learned the Marseillaise, en français, naturellement!

We hope that this will become a regular fixture in the Choir Calendar. I am glad to acknowledge the way in which the Choir and especially its younger members, entered into the spirit of the occasion, standing respectfully for an hour in rather cold weather without grumbling (at any rate, not in my hearing). We were lucky with the weather. Will it rain next year, I wonder?

To aid James’s settling-in, I recently went through the service lists and the boxes of music sung by the choir since I joined All Saints Church. I compiled a list, and was astounded to find it contained over 120 different pieces of music. The credit for this goes of course to Martin Seymour and Clem Virgo who introduced all this and much more repertoire to the Choir, but it is amazing to think that all this could be newly learned or revised and then performed in a mere 2½ years. The chronological span is very wide, from plainsong and music by Byrd and Victoria to the present day in the form of the music by Quinney and Owens mentioned above.

Some thanks are now due. James and I are keen to thank Jeremy Rowe and Clem Virgo for their work in singing, conducting and playing the organ. For our part, it is so good to have such able, inspiring, reliable and helpful musicians whom we can call upon – but in saying this here, I know I am preaching to the converted.

At this point I’d like to mention the Music Trust, in which Clem Virgo remains a leading light. As you probably know, this is a foundation providing financial support for music lessons and the like to members of the Choir. The Committee has met on two occasions recently to consider applications. The Trust wishes to stress that applications may be made at any time of the year; parents and choristers are invited to look up the details on the Church website.

More thanks. To Janice Leggate for keeping the Choir Vestry tidy and putting the music into choristers’ folders. To Joan Walls as Convener of Occasionals. To Glynis Simons, David Cruise and others for administrative work. To Janet Ramsden for her organisation of the Friday and Sunday concerts, but this is another article in its own right for a future Bridge. And to the people who provide the teas at these concerts. Have I left anyone out?

All this could not happen, of course, without the sturdy support of choir parents, ensuring children’s attendance at rehearsals and services, whatever the weather. Their determination shines through. More than once, James Grimwood has mentioned to me how unfailingly helpful everyone at All Saints Church has been. I endorse that view, and add that the positive and encouraging attitude of clergy and congregation alike make this Church one in which it is easy to work and inviting to innovate.

On behalf of the Choir, James and I would like to say thanks to you all for creating this healthy environment.

This article, written by Rhidian Jones, featured in the Advent 2019 edition of The Bridge – the magazine for All Saints’ Church in Marlow. Pick up your free copy in church or download it here.