As an organist it is my privilege to arrive early on Sundays and enjoy the quiet of the chapel before everyone else arrives. It is a time for organising music to be sung, putting chairs and books out, and thinking how that music shall sound. It is a time of concern, wondering who will appear, will there be a vocal part missing, and if so, how do we cope? This can be done with minimal lighting in the winter. In the course of this process, a choir member enters, the lights go on and that quiet time of being on one’s own shifts to one in which a different facet of personality switches on, the one which engages with others, the organ, and the music. Gradually, the service comes to life. By the end, assuming everything has gone well, everyone descends to refreshment, and people go home or elsewhere. A reverse process goes on, ending up with everything being put away till next time, and the door is closed. Quiet descends once again.
The process is repeated every time any of us who runs a church choir turns up on Sundays, or to take choir practice mid-week or, as in my case, to give lessons in how to do it. It is a process that applies to any situation where presentation of prepared work of any kind is presented for public or private consumption. The important part is always the quiet preparation beforehand, which starts at the point of deciding what should be played and/or sung. John Wesley always said that the more he had to do in a day, the earlier he got up to pray about the tasks ahead. Few of us would rise at 3.00am to prepare for anything unless the paid day job demands it. But we can recreate the attitude of mind and body for good work in a short time of quiet with eyes shut and sitting still for a few minutes.
This process is like a wave that forms, rises, gains in intensity, reaches a peak, then subsides. It is a blueprint for music from its creation, to its performance, until the time it dies away, leaving its imprint in the minds of its hearers, and its vibrations in the walls of the building. Those vibrations may also have been recorded for posterity in all forms with which we are familiar today.
If this is how one part of human creativity works, then it must work for other aspects of life, in both small and invisible, and in much larger, forms that astronomers and scientists continue to explore and attempt to explain. The great Italian theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, describes, in Reality Is Not What It Seems,’ how the work of Michael Faraday, and James Clark Maxwell, led to what became known as ‘the field’. Faraday’s invisible connecting lines were waves which were found to be conductors of electro-magnetism and colour. Despite advances based on this work in today’s communication technology, which help to make organ playing easier, there is still so much to discover, learn about, and ponder upon, and how good that humanity manages to find such different, colourful expressions with which to entertain, inform and inspire from one generation to the next. As above and around, so below and around.
When listening to Midweek on Radio 4, I heard about the idea of a playlist for dementia sufferers, and how playing music of their youth can help stimulate the mind and create an oasis of happiness for a time. So, I started one and I wonder what would be on the playlists of SSLSO members? Surprisingly, mine features very little organ music. Maybe, one spends too much time playing it, as it is endlessly fascinating and satisfying to learn and perform new works, whereas my listening choices are from the 1950’s, 1960’s, including music on ‘Children’s Hour’, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, some rock and roll, Beatles, Beachboys, Dusty Springfield, Motown tracks, then the list launches into Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Handel, all Tudor Church Music and Madrigal composers, Renaissance motet composers, Monteverdi, and the list goes on into more familiar territory.
I was glad to have taken the usual books of well-known and suitable pieces of music to a funeral. The Bach-Gounod Ave Maria was prepared, as requested, for before the service, and I thought that the music before the committal would be a CD of Fauré’s Pie Jesu, sung by a favourite singer of the deceased. No CD appeared and the inevitable request came, can you play it? The deceased’s daughter was glad that it was a live performance, even without a singer. She appreciated that it was real, in real time. At a piano recital in St Lawrence Jewry Norman and I were able to sit close to the front where we could see the keyboard. This was a lovely experience, especially to see how the performer prepared herself for the start of each piece, and how the final moment was held whilst the vibrations died away. Quietness descended, then the applause began and reality took over as the audience members went their separate ways, hopefully with the beautiful sounds she created living in her hearers’ minds, the result, perhaps, of the effect of being in the same place as music being played live. It was the same at the funeral. Sound waves containing musical messages reached their hearers more deeply than any recorded version would have done.
The power of live music was graphically demonstrated to me one a recent visit to my Yorkshire grandchildren. One restless evening, I started to sing the Blue Danube to the older child. The last time we did this, she was 6 months old, and we waltzed around our kitchen during the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. Instantly, the babble stopped. She seemed to recognise what had been sung and played to her several months previously. Her eyes opened wide with an expression of wonder, and within minutes of returning her to her bed, she was fast asleep. The imprint of the Blue Danube was there. As with the young, so with the old, and so with us all.