Saturday, November 27, 2010

Byrd, Couperin, and Circus Music

Every night this week I've taken my guest to a different college chapel. Last night we went to one of my favourites from both architectural and musical points of view. The former chaplain, who was a lovely, saintly, prayerful man, has, alas, retired. I can't tell from the college website if a new one has been appointed, but last night a feeling of dread crept into my bones as just before the service began a clergyman strode in to fiddle with something at the Officiant's stall. In procession he wore a doctor's hood over his surplice, which seemed a bit much; most of the clergy I've seen with doctorates usually just wear the MA hood.

The service was lovely: Couperin, Radcliffe responses, Byrd canticles. So far so good. But then came the first lot of said prayers and when I heard the anal tenor speaking voice, my sense of dread returned. There is something about the voices of a lot of evangelical clergy that makes them sound like there is some kind of stricture in their throats, coming up from beneath, rather than a high throat choking. I don't know how to describe it—strangulated? When we got to the second set of prayers, my fears were confirmed: sermonettes for Christianettes, as one of my old profs (Lewis W. Spitz of Stanford) used to say—the usual wordy pap, so out of place in that lovely chapel. But the worst was yet to come.

The hymn was an evo favorite, just about bearable in its New English Hymnal version, but that wasn't the tune used. Instead, the organ scholar literally pulled out all the stops and made the concert tracker sound like a Wurlitzer. The tune was one I'd thankfully never heard before, and I kept my mouth shut. It sounded like circus music, and between each verse the organist did a few calliope riffs. The choir belted it out with gusto, but did I detect a bit of irony in both the organ playing and the choir's singing? And in a college known for its wonderful music, how could someone be so insensitive as to insert this raucous banal gutter music in the midst of the contemplative atmosphere created by Byrd and Couperin?

It will be a long, long time before I go to that chapel again.


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