Dr Maureen A Farrell (Senior Lecturer, Programme Leader MEd Children’s Literature and Literacies, UoG)
Descriptions of Christmas 2020 usually seem to include words like unusual, challenging or unprecedented. One I would add is absence. The absence of contact, the absence of touch, the absence of gathering – social and religious. And for me one of the biggest absences is the absence of singing, particularly choral singing and even more specifically singing at weekly mass and the annual carol concert.
Singing has been a part of my life since I can remember. One of my earliest memories of school is the primary school nativity play. In my school, St Peter’s Girls’ and Infants’ school in Partick, there was a pecking order. Primary one children presented a Christmas play for the concert. In my year we did The Little Fir Tree – I was a sunbeam! But the Primary two children presented the Nativity. I was fully prepared to offer myself for the role of Mary when I got to Primary 2 but I wasn’t even allowed to audition. I was plucked out of the audition queue and literally side-lined – on a bench to the left of the stage and beside the piano. For I had been ‘selected’ to be in the choir to accompany the Nativity play. At the time I was extremely unhappy and of course there was no option for self-advocacy. So, I found myself in a small group of children who sang the carols for the nativity play. It hadn’t dawned on me that it was because my ability lay in that area.
During my primary and secondary schooling I was a member of choirs and occasional soloist and I was part of the music ministry at St Peter’s Partick on into my university career. Over the years I continued to sing in various choirs but I take great delight in my current membership in the choir of St Aloysius in Garnethill.
This choir has a very long history, associated with St Aloysius College, under a number of different leaders. The choir usually sings at the 12-noon mass and on other special occasions: Easter, Christmas, Remembrance Sunday for example. On Sundays there is a sung mass including settings by among others, Byrd, Croce, Victoria, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Widor, Kitson and Mozart as well as sacred pieces by Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Bach and more modern composers like Goodall, Dubra, Stopford, Gjeilo. The music we sing is challenging, beautiful and helped by the marvellous acoustics in the church provides a genuinely spiritual and uplifting experience. We know this because people tell us so and some travel specifically to attend this mass.
To prepare this music the choir meet about an hour and a half before mass to rehearse, with some additional time before Christmas and Easter usually. The commitment to the music, the comradery of the rehearsals, the laughter and friendship, the delight in the sounds, the varied reactions to the music selections are all vital parts of the preparation for contributing to the celebration of mass. Food for the body as well as food for the soul. We haven’t been able to do this since the 15th of March last year and I and fellow choir members miss it badly. We currently have to make do with list of the music we would have been singing provided by our choir master. It’s a bitter-sweet experience.
St Augustine reminds us that when we sing, we pray twice, and we also know that it is not just about singing, it is about the vital part music plays in Catholic worship and culture in general. We learn from it and we learn through it. When we hear, for example, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, we are hearing beautiful music, but we’re also being reminded that in the Eucharist we are encountering the true Body of Christ. In Gregorian chant, we can be drawn into the rhythms and tradition of centuries of monastic life and our rich musical tradition connects us with those who have gone before and will connect us with those who follow. I miss those aspects also.
While in lockdown I have ‘attended’ mass in Scotland, Ireland, England, France, New Jersey and Sydney and have been able to experience their music vicariously. It’s wonderful that technology allows us to do this but I must be honest and say that I miss the singing. Maybe poetry can say what I want to and what I want to get back to.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.