Saturday, January 2, 2016

"The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus," the conductor Robert Shaw once said, "is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow; and nobody but the most purposive and creative of music minds— from Bach in both directions— can invite and sustain its devotion."

After a brief warm-up we open the piece we're going to perform in April, A German Requiem, by Johannes Brahms. Although I've done this piece twice before, it's in German and I no longer remember what the words mean. Just because this is church music, one shouldn't assume it's about something . . . churchy. One Christmas we sang a piece by the British composer Benjamin Britten that referred to a few missing children. "Timothy, Mark, and John are gone, are gone, are gone, are gone, are gone," one line went. Turns out that one particularly hard winter the boys were butchered Sweeney Todd– style and salted down to eat. "Famine tracks us down the lanes, Hunger holds our horses' reins." We were singing about cannibalism. Cannibalizing children, no less. I looked out at the audience when we came to that part. Are they getting this? The actual text of the piece might be vague, but the title is Nicolas and the Pickled Boys and it's printed right there in the program . The chorus ends with St. Nicolas bringing the boys back to life (" Timothy , Mark, and John, put your fleshly garments on!") who then sing "alleluia." For the performance, we had three choir boys who walked down the center aisle of the church, singing in their pure and innocent voices, without a hint of the grisly deaths they'd just suffered.