A Blast from the Past

I found this post, written after 16 December 1984, as I went through old papers this weekend.

The Men and Boys of St. John’s College, Cambridge, England, sang an Advent service of lessons and carols at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener on Sunday, 16 December.

My husband was one of the choir’s sponsors, so we had seats in the first row. I don’t think I can describe the experience of hearing and seeing them without sounding sappy. St. John’s has to be one of the finest choirs in the world.

When the choir reached the chancel during the processional hymn, I was physically overwhelmed, not just by the loudness–though with full organ, a congregation of 1,000, and the choir at full volume, things were certainly loud–but by the exquisiteness, and I had to stop singing to hold on to the rail in front of the pew. I was afraid that I was going to lose my balance. I’d been taken up by the music. I wasn’t just hearing it.

Being so close had its lighter moments visually. Director George Guest’s hood was limp with dirt, its red and white virtually the same colour.

The Head Chorister was involved in a power struggle with the boy who held the music. The boys sing two or three to a copy, and standing in the centre and holding the music is a mark of prestige. This was a struggle between kinds of prestige. Time after time, the Head Chorister would pull the music to the left so that it would be in front of him, and the boy who held it would respond by pulling it back, registering as much annoyance of expression as he possibly could while singing difficult music beautifully. He would lose every time, however, finally letting go. The third boy in the group didn’t seem to care who held the music.

Another boy dropped his music during the difficult and dissonant Lennox Berkeley Magnificat. None of the boys looking at that copy missed a note as a second copy got passed from the right to relieve them.

Another boy left the choir during the service, and George Guest cast looks as black as he could to the retiring back, waiting until he reached the door before he began conducting.

Another boy clutched at places too delicate to mention here, wrinkling his gown permanently in the process.

The Organ Scholars were irreverent.

Two of the youngest boys, a Richard Holt and a James Hughes (there will always be an England), stayed with us for the night. Intelligent life forms from another planet. All choristers play two instruments–James, piano and violin; Richard, piano and French horn. We asked, Did you choose your instruments yourselves, or were they chosen for you? Well, said Richard, it was perfectly logical that I should play the piano. He didn’t elaborate.

They were quite willing to talk politics. The Head Chorister and the boy who holds the music are always fighting, said Richard and James. The Head Chorister is always trying to tell everyone what to do. The boy who left the service wasn’t sick, just tired, fooling around all afternoon. He said he didn’t want to sing, but it wasn’t fair of him to leave. Dr. Guest was very angry, said one. Yes, said the other. Dr. Guest was very angry. A tenor with a hood was asked to stay on–we don’t know what he does, they said, but John’s lost almost half of its men this year. The Organ Scholar who played most of the service wasn’t the real Organ Scholar. He was an old one.

What would you do, we asked, if you met a boy from King’s? We can’t do anything, said James, because we never see them. I saw one once, said Richard darkly (speaking more to James than to us), but I was with my parents. James was clearly interested. Well, I asked, what would you do if there were no parents around? Oh, said James, we’d murder them.

There was some question as to whether they were singing in London or Buffalo the following day. London, I said, trying to be helpful, is about an hour to the west and Buffalo about two-and-a-half hours to the east of Kitchener. I should have thought, said Richard, using tenses no one in North America can name, that Buffalo is south and east of Kitchener, not just east. Yes, it is, I said, slightly annoyed.

A CBC broadcaster read an account a few days ago of a man who had heard the boy Mozart in concert. Imagine my astonishment, the account ran, at seeing the young Mozart playing brilliantly on the piano and then getting up and riding a hobby horse around the room.

That’s a little how we felt. It was only when these boys who sang so beautifully, who knew so much and spoke so well, came downstairs in pyjamas and bare feet, that I remembered they were children. Children, we discovered later, who hadn’t brushed their teeth, who hadn’t used their washcloths and towels, and who almost forgot their jackets.

Do you mind, asked Richard at the breakfast table, if I stir my orange juice with the end of my knife?

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