The Epiphany Carol Service, with its six Bible readings, is a comparatively recent innovation at St Mary’s: echoing the nine lessons and carols that we have before Christmas, it capitalises on the popularity of the Christmas Carol services and stretches the format out into the January period to bring extra music and extra Bible readings into the later weeks of Epiphany which are usually the darkest and longest and, let’s face it, most depressing months of the year, literally and figuratively lighting our darkness and sending us home warm and with a song in our heart (and on this occasion mulled wine in our bellies if we so chose).
The song I went home singing, “O Magnum Mysterium” by Lauridsen, was a new piece that the choir had learned in preparation for the service. The other fairly new piece was “Here is the little door” by Howells. This was much harder to master than the Lauridsen but both have sensitive lyrics and convey a sense of mystery and wonder at the incarnated Christ child holding the wonders of heaven and lying in a manger. “Tribus Miraculis” by Brian Moles was slightly more familiar, equally lovely and plays on the legend that was explained to us the previous week, that Christ’s birthday was also the date on which he turned the water into wine and on which he was baptised, a holy day honoured by three miracles – in my dotage I have become quite enamoured of the wackiness of some Medieval English Christmas traditions so I would not have them any other way. This piece had a lovely section with three plainsong verses which were sung most beautifully by soloists.
David our Rector introduced the service and there were some prayers but the readings and carols were not separated by any sermon, which was nice for a change and made it seem very formal and orderly and the Bible readings spoke powerfully without any need for further explanation.
At the family service we always sing hymns very fast as is the modern way for the soundbite generation, but in the evening we could luxuriate over the words a little except for the deceptively simple carol “Masters in the Hall” which David Willcocks somehow contrived to make diabolically difficult. In the sixteen years that I have been singing carols here there are some tongue twisters such as this with impossible geography which I have continuously grappled with ineffectually so I and others felt inordinately proud of ourselves for managing to reach the end at the same time as everyone else and it felt as if we had solved a very difficult Sudoku, which was most pleasing.
Choir doings, January–February
The choir enjoyed a lazy Sunday off this month, a rare event, as on 22 January the United Service was held in the United Reformed Church. Sunday 29 January was Candlemas and the last Sunday of Epiphany. The sermon dealt with the presentation of Christ in the temple, which theme was underlined by the choir’s singing of Eccard’s well-loved anthem by the same title (“Presentation of Christ in the Temple”, composed in 1598), as well as Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis in Bb, two-thirds of which is for male voices only singing Simeon’s canticle based on Luke 2:29-32. Such beautiful music! – performed while our Director of Music was far away skiing across wintry lands.
And then we reverted to Ordinary Time and our green service booklets again. On the first Sunday in February we sang “Beati quorum”, another choir favourite – another Stanford!
Tallis’ “O nata lux” was the anthem on the morning of Sunday 12th. At practice, Jeremy had the men (basses 1 and 2 and tenors) sing through it on their own, and us women sat there listening to the intertwining of voices and filled with awe at the sheer perfection of it. After the service, a member of the congregation came up to me and said, “That’s what I want sung at my funeral.”
Evensong that day featured Wood’s “O thou the central orb” (most choir members can probably sing this backwards from memory, as the motet used to be part of the standard repertoire in the past) and canticles in Bb by Henry Smart (another piece from the standard repertoire of long-standing members of the choir. All told, Smart, an Edwardian composer, is probably better known and better liked in this choir for his hymn compositions, among them “God of grace and God of glory”. We sang another hymn set by Smart on the morning of the 12th – a hymn, incidentally, with a very similar title, “God of mercy, God of grace”).
Meanwhile at choir practices on Fridays we have been delving yet again into our new blue anthem books and, lately, Mozart’s Requiem in preparation for the Good Friday devotional offering.