I’m not a musician in any real sense of the word, only an enthusiast. In good choirs I’ve sung in, my contributions have been limited to reasonably non-incompetent alto-line filler, for pieces like Mendelssohn’s Richte mich Gott.
That’s one kind of good choir: the choir which performs great music. And then there’s the choir at my smalltown parish church, which is a good thing on another level entirely.
This choir consists of six singers: three women, including me, and three men, plus a very nice lady organist who dislikes driving in the rain. It’s been a wet spring. If I tell you that our crowning achievement of the last six months has been to learn to sing Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” a capella, that will give you some idea. If I tell you that the way we sing it is with two sopranos, one alto, one tenor, one male voice singing the soprano line down an octave, and one male voice still undecided and therefore mostly silent — well, you get the picture. You maybe won’t be buying our CD any time soon.
Still, that this choir wanted to sing Mozart at all bespeaks a certain vision, I think. And I have to say that although I’ve sung that piece for years with reasonable non-incompetence, coming to it again in this context is like learning it anew — absent the props of a director and an accompanist, I’ve had to listen to the singers around me as I think I’ve probably never listened before, and also, in my head, to what I know the music really sounds like.
For a bunch of enthusiasts, this represents hard work and a gesture towards transcendence. You want to serve the music, and you wish that the gap between it and your abilities were not so yawning. You wish that goodheartedness translated directly into good music. You wish that what you know is out there were yours, simply because you know it’s out there.
It was frankly a relief when, as I was leaving church yesterday, Father thrust a couple of hymnals into my arms and said, “Why don’t you find some things for the choir to learn? Something simple.”
So when I got home, I began paging through one of them, The Summit Choirbook. Doubtless many readers will be familiar with this book already, but I was not.
It’s that rarity, a good all-encompassing traditional Catholic hymnal, including
a breadth of classic sacred music, ranging from Gregorian chant to Eastern plainchants (Ukrainian, Russian, Polish), from translations of ancient texts to 20th Century compositions . . . ancient and modern poetry and folk carols.
I found a number of personal favorites in its pages: the medieval carol “Angelus ad Virginem,” the haunting “Hertfordshire Carol,” and the full and un-inclusive-ized text of “Come Down, O Love Divine,” for Pentecost.
All of these I sang, walking up and down in the echo-y dining room, while the children upstairs kept calling down to ask what on earth I was doing. Singing, actually, I said. And if I can sing these by myself, with no piano and no help, then I know five other people who can sing them, too.