Happy Christmas to All
Christmas arrived last week.
A friend (thank you, Beth!) took me to hear The Sixteen at the lovely St John the Evangelist Church in East Oxford, now a concert venue. It happened that this formal concert took place on the same day as the Bodleian carols at the library, which is very informal: the community of scholars gathers to sing carols and listen to readings, led by a choir and scratch orchestra drawn from the staff. This year there was a trumpet for the first time, which made for a spine-tingling finish as we sang the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah.
Bodley carols always makes my Christmas, but to be able to listen to The Sixteen in addition was something close to heaven. The end of the first half of the concert left me in floods of tears—two versions of O Magnum Mysterium sandwiched around Bethlehem Down. My friend's eyes also were damp as she ministered to me with hot mulled wine from a thermos during the interval.
What is it about this musical group that is so deeply affecting? Perhaps in part it is that the twenty singers have a broad age range from twenties to ??? fifties? sixties? The span of ages makes for a particularly rich sound. Perhaps it is the perfection of the singing? Yet the listener is aware that the music goes far beyond perfection. The group is intensely human in the best sense. It is never artificial. Spontaneity charges the music with what I can only characterise as kindly passion. Does the passion give rise to the perfection or vice versa? The integration in the music of The Sixteen means that the whole is far, far more than the sum of its parts. The listener is so caught up that it becomes impossible to analyse either in the moment or in retrospect. As Beth remarked, Harry Christophers is the sort of conductor for whom you'd sing your heart out. 'Who sings, prays twice', the hearts of listeners singing silently with the group, mirroring that spontaneous perfection.
And yes, the whole experience was a parable of the incarnation, which resonates far beyond the musical moment—as does the Feast itself, far beyond the twelve days of Christmas. It will continue to resonate as I leave for my retreat in Scotland on January 6. There is no wifi at the retreat, so this blog will be suspended from that date until late March. I hope to keep a journal of the retreat, which I will post on my return.
May all of you, Gentle Readers, have a most blessed Christmas season and every joy in the New Year.