Casa Rosales

Casa Rosales

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Feathers, breath and voices

I've just read 'Strong Words' on a fellow blogger's post and had the pleasure of listening to an excerpt from the Messiah which has sent me spiralling back into nostalgia and thoughts of 'when I was young'.

I had a Methodist upbringing in the loosest sense - meaning I went with my grandparents to a Methodist Chapel every Sunday, where I thought the Vicar was the most wonderful man and whose words I hung on every week. I would be about 9 or 10 and when I hear his voice in my head, he has a strong Welsh accent, though at the time, I had no idea why he sounded different from everyone else around in our little Yorkshire village.

The chapel was quite small and the congregation sat facing the Vicar, the organ and the choir. My grandpa was in the choir and he had a very loud penetrating  tenor voice. I cannot for the life of me remember how many people were in the choir altogether - not that many - but I remember an equally penetrating soprano called Mrs Francis. To the congregation, particularly to me and my sister, it seemed as though my grandpa and Mrs Francis were engaged in a weekly battle as to who could sing the loudest. My grandpa's singing style - whilst in tune and note perfect - was comical to watch as he was a head back, adam's apple-wobbling tenor. He also sniffed quite a lot, occasionally pulling out a large, clean white hanky to mop as well. He was totally oblivious to everything apart from his singing and he did enjoy himself.

My granny didn't sing, though she did play the piano - famously as the pianist at the local cinema when the movies were silent. She didn't sing in the choir because she was very deaf. Which also meant she didn't hear my grandpa's singing. Small mercies.

My mum sings and plays and singing with an excellent choir, The Tatton Singers, in Knutsford is one of her greatest pleasure. At Christmas and family get-togethers we would always sing, attempting the Messiah most years - with a glut of altos, my grandpa holding his own on tenor and various others delivering the 'tune'. We never had a reliable bass but we managed without. It was Perpetua's post that reminded me of all this. It also reminded me of a lovely period in my life after I'd finished my degree.

I was living in London and looking for a temporary job over the summer. A friend ran a music shop in Soho and promised to try and help. I was delighted to get a phone call from Ted Perry, who had a record company called Hyperion - then a family-run business with a growing reputation for quality productions. It was just after they had produced the now very famous 'A Feather on the Breath of God' album with the voices of Emma Kirkby and the Gothic Singers. If you have never heard it, it's worth having a little moment with these beautiful, pure, clear voices which reach back over the centuries to when Hildegard of Bingen wrote this down

I was invited to join the team to provide page-turning duties for recording pianists as and when required and in the months that followed, I can lay claim to having made around eight records (I don't know if they were CDs) - including working with Roger Vignoles and The Songmaker's Almanac.
My nostalgia kicked in when I heard the first few notes of 'Comfort Ye' (or 'Come for Tea' as we used to say) from the Messiah. Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who used to sing with The Songmaker's Almanac and was on a couple of 'my' records (or should that be the other way round?) had possibly the most wonderful tenor voice in my opinion. Not for the big Pavarotti-type arias, but for the things I love, like Handel, Bach - oh, and Britten. He sang 'Les Illuminations' one year at the Proms and I was in heaven. He died sadly of Alzheimer's disease last year. Anyway, I have a recording of the Messiah with Anthony singing which is my all time favourite. I could only find a couple of recordings on YouTube but this one captures the quality I like so much about his voice - to me, it's very intimate and personal, though I'm not sure if that's because I was lucky to be so close to him during the recordings made by the Songmaker's Almanac all those years ago.

In addition to this being one of the best little part time jobs anyone who loves music could possibly have, we made the recordings in a fantastic place - the Art Worker's Guild, in Queen's Square, London - AND I was invited to the company's Christmas party that year - probably 1983 - held in this wonderful Georgian building. I was terribly nervous about going as it was full of the famous musical names of the era but the champagne flowed very freely and rather a lot of it was going into me so by the end of the evening, I was accosting people and telling them I was the page-turner, who were they?  I'm not going to drop names here...sadly I guess many will be dead now. But it was a wonderful evening even though I remember it with a touch of embarrassment and certainly don't remember getting home afterwards!

I haven't taken the time in recent years to listen to the Messiah but you can bet your life that I will be doing this year - probably more than once. I'm grateful to Perpetua for yet another lovely post and especially one that has taken me on my own little trip down memory lane.


  1. Annie, I'm SO pleased reading my post catapulted you back to the memories you so enjoyably describe in this post. I just love the pen portrait of your Grandpa in the chapel choir. :-)

    Thank you for the two links to pieces I love. I discovered "A Feather on the Breath of God" soon after it was brought out and my cassette of it must be almost worn out by now. For some reason I've never got round to buying the CD, but I'm now hoping Father Christmas may bring it my way.

    Lucky you, having a chance to be involved in record production and meet so many musicians. I'm very familiar with Anthony Rolfe Johnson's name of course, not least because he was involved in reviving the Gregynog Festival only a few miles away from us in Mid-Wales, but I missed the announcement of his death through being in France at the time. How sad.

  2. I didn't have a religious upbringing in the slightest, but I was really drawn as a young teenager to religious classical music. I belonged to the Suffolk Schools Choir, which doesn't sound very glamorous, but was actually wonderful. They would take us out of school for a few days to a residential place where they would drill us with whatever it was they had chosen and then we would perform at the end of it with professional sopranos, baritones etc at Snape Maltings. It was about a hundred strong choir with the Suffolk Schools Orchestra as well. The year we did the Hallelujah Chorus (which was brilliant of course) we also did Stanford's Songs of the Fleet. It was the most emotional music I'd ever heard at the time! I completely loved the whole experience. I still remember one of the songs; "In a blue dusk the ship astern uplifts her slender spars. With golden lights that seem to burn among the silver stars. Like fleets along a cloudy shore the constellations creep; like planets on the ocean floor our silent course we keep..." When I remember singing it I am transported to a completely different place. Definitely singing was my entry in the world of spirituality, religion, whatever you like to call it, the world of the soul. I too shall be listening to the Messiah this Christmas, if only to hear the words that thrilled me so completely when I first heard them sung: "The people that walketh in darkness have seen a great light."

    Just a comment about Hildegard von Bingen. I have loved her music for years, and when I came to Montpellier I asked the girls in the restaurant if they knew of her. They looked a bit confused and then said, "You mean Hildegard von Bingen the cook?" It was my turn to be astonished when I realised that we were talking about the very same person! I had no idea she was so famous for her recipes, but that was how these girls knew of her. Funny!

  3. Perpetua, I'm so glad you are familiar with Anthony RJ - he was a lovely man and great fun to work with - and why is it am not at all surprised that you know of Hildegard's music? As always, thank you and thank you www that we can share these things.

  4. Hira - what a wonderful comment you have left me - full of light touches of delight. I know Snape Maltings well and that part of Suffolk and imagine your experiences could touch even the most insensitive of hearts and souls. Music definitely is my route to the spiritual.

    Love the additional information about Hildegard. I guess she was a pretty impressive woman, not just for her time, but in the whole realm of women. I shall investigate further!

  5. Yes, my feeling is that Hildegard's nuns were really, really lucky to have her as their abbess. Can you imagine? All that amazing, innovative music on tap and lovely food too!

  6. As always, wonderful to read Halelujah Chorus experience has been uplifting but on a different...small town sort of scale. The Messiah has been performed on the stage at Todmorden Town Hall every year, 1st Sunday in Advent for well over 100 years. For 5 or 6 of those years, I sang with the Tod Choral society ( no auditions.....if you could carry a tune, and wanted to be involved, you could be)and it was a wonderful experience. For a few of my years as part of the choir I stood next to a lady called Hilda Ford.... who had sang The Messiah over 80 times. I was 47 in 2002... and she was 100. her eyesight was long gone, but as she told me, she knew it so well, she didn't need to look at the music.... and her voice was sweet and clear.....and she was note perfect.
    Our giggles came not with Come for tea, but "We, like sheep" ..... it always seemed so funny, of course we did, we were from Todmorden and we were surrounded by the damn things.
    ...just such a special piece of music, so tied up with memories for so many people. I am incredibly proud to have been part of the history of the performances in Todmorden....that town hall roof always rose, and I'm sure will continue to do so for another 100 years and more. x


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