The end of an annus horribilis – a good time to remember things you love
Since this is the time of the year when curmudgeonly householders around the UK spend their evenings repelling gangs of itinerant carol singers, it’s time for a few words about something I love. Something enduring. Something far away from the bloodstained streets of Aleppo, beyond the reach of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage and all the others who have contributed to such a rotten 2016.
The BBC has come in for its share of brickbats of late. Yet whatever its follies and weaknesses, there are still some things it does supremely well. Planet Earth 2 is the ultimate in wildlife documentaries. Another niche it dominates – though not without competition from Classic FM with its blathering hosts and sampling of works that deserve to be heard in their entirety – is classical music.
Classic FM has its uses. It’s probably done more than the BBC in recent years to convert a mass audience to the classical genre. But the BBC’s musical coverage is a four-course meal compared with Classic’s fast food. Or, to use an analogy from the greatest game in the world, Test cricket versus T-20. The BBC broadcasts the Proms. It produces documentaries on music history – David Starkey’s glorious series on English royal music is a recent example. It funds, sponsors and promotes classical music like no other broadcaster.
More than any other classical form, I love choral music. The voice is the only musical instrument that that can choke me up. I sat through Princess Diana’s funeral in tears. Not out of grief for her. It could have been anyone in that coffin. It was the setting, the ceremony and above all the music that transformed what might have been just a sad event into something truly heart-wrenching.
It all started for me when I joined the Bryanston school choir. It wasn’t just the music. Sometimes, to love something you need to be inspired to do so by others. In this case I have to thank the choirmaster, Rodney Dingle. Half a century on, I still remember and listen to the music he had us sing: motets by Tallis and Byrd, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and much more.
Rodney Dingle will be quite old by now, but hopefully he’s still around. Either way, through this post I hope to immortalise him as a magnificent choir master who imbued this one-time chorister with a lifetime passion for the music he loved.
Last week the BBC gave us something to treasure, for reasons beyond the music itself. It was the finals of the annual Choir of the Year competition. I had no idea there was such an event – I just stumbled across it by accident. The only big singing competition in the UK I previously knew about was at the Eisteddfod, a festival that celebrates all things Welsh. It used to coincide with family holidays in Wales when I was a child, but I remember little about it apart from druids declaiming in a language I didn’t understand.
Quite apart from the quality of singing, which was carried off with panache and shining eyes, the six choirs represent an activity both binds and transcends generations, and is to be found in all corners of the country. The winners were Voices of Hope, an acapella group from Newcastle. Four of the other competitors came Wales and Yorkshire – a reminder perhaps that a musical tradition rooted in mining communities has lived on beyond the demise of coal.
Choral singing, like orchestral music, is not about me, me, me. Though there are often parts for soloists, it’s a team activity. It’s is about us, us, us. It demands discipline and precision equal to anything you would find elsewhere in the performing arts. And most of the people who sing in choirs don’t do it for the money. They are amateurs in the true sense of the word – they do it for love.
For me, the human voice is quite unlike any other instrument. In the hands of a skilled musical director, it is as multi-textured as any orchestra. Watching the choir director from Voices of Hope coaxing dynamic range and power from his singers took me back to a chilly chapel in Dorset where I spent some of the happiest hours of my life.
Sadly, my singing days are long gone. If Donald Trump wants an effective instrument of torture, he should hire me to sing to his prisoners. Fortunately, I have a sister who can do what I can’t. She performs in a large choir at many of the major British venues – The Albert Hall and the Barbican, as well as churches and concert halls throughout the UK and the continent.
Unlike her, I never experienced the fellow-feeling that comes from being in a choir drawn from different age groups and backgrounds. Mine was a boy’s choir, occasionally augmented by teachers. I once made a living from other forms of music, each with their own emotional power. But choral music was my first love, and the legacy of those few short years has been decades of listening.
For that, I thank Rodney Dingle, wherever he is.