14 April 2020
Hello everyone! I hope all is well with you and yours as we enter week four of ‘lock down’. I have been struck by how much this epidemic is being referred to in military terms, with no opposing troops or territory to be recaptured in sight, and slightly confused battle plans. We are ‘waging war’ on this ‘enemy’ and are definitely going to ‘defeat it’ – just a pity our troops are so poorly equipped with no prospect of ammunition arriving any time soon. The best support we can give to our ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ is to stay at home and clap hard every Thursday at 8.00. I find hitting a small saucepan with a wooden spoon very effective – try it!
All this war talk reminds me of the congratulatory letter I wrote to members of the choir in June 2004 after our stunning performance of Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time in St. Mary’s Church Banbury. Naturally, and more appropriately, it invoked many a military metaphor (but little alliteration!). I would like to share it with you; a dip into history will make an interesting read and will stir some fine memories for those who took part in the concert. It’s a bit of a laugh, but at heart it is praising a stunning performance of what was in 2004 our toughest challenge. Thanking everyone for having the courage to tackle this music and working hard with such enthusiasm is an oft-repeated mantra these days – a credit to our ambitiousness and the joy we seek in singing. How little has changed!
Some context before you read: A Child of our Time is a couple of rungs below Belshazzar’s Feast on the ladder of choral challenges. Very dramatic and closer to home than the story of Biblical Belshazzar, it was inspired by the horror of Kristallnacht, which Tippett portrayed as the experience of all oppressed people, and first performed in 1944 as a pacifist message. Like BF it is a beautiful beast – hard to rehearse, rhythmically difficult and tonally unsettling – doesn’t stay in any key for very long! Unlike BF it has moments of musical respite from the drama in the settings of some of the most well-known Spirituals. These are harmonically much more stable, expressive and very moving in the context of the whole, equal to the Chorales in Bach’s Passions – familiar music which everyone knows. We were accompanied by the Cheltenham Chamber Orchestra on this occasion too.
You need to know that ‘Lieutenant Toby’ refers to Toby Blundell who was our Nick/Julie/Brian/Keith person at the time and also that we rehearsed in the church on the Friday night before the concert, and we were anxious about it! Happy reading…..
“Now you can all relax.....”
(Stand at ease)
The summer moves on, and we are all relatively relaxed, convalescing well, as the Tippett trauma becomes a distant memory, but I can still recall what a triumphant occasion June 4th really was. Like a war veteran, I hazily recall our comradeship and tenacity in the face of a stern enemy, our resourcefulness when required to do so much, with so little, and our stoicism in predicting victory when defeat seemed guaranteed. As D-Day approached, the only certainty was that Lieutenant Toby would have prepared the trenches, called in extra
stretcher-bearers, and despatched route maps to the reinforcements of the Cheltenham Regiment, who were not only heavily armed when they arrived, but gave unstinting and valiant support in a common endeavour. A minor skirmish in our new barracks on the Friday night, and the anxiety that perhaps the battle plan had not been rehearsed tightly enough, demoralised the troops a little, but this was nerves prior to the big push, and only served to strengthen everyone’s resolve to meet the foe head on when battle finally commenced. The intense training paid off; well-drilled tactics enabled most of us to stay together and fight as a unit. We ended the assault having captured an astounding amount of territory, raising the flag of victory with pride, and giving thanks that there were so few casualties.
Telegrams from the War Office trumpeted such phrases as “Certainly members of the audience I knew thought it was quite a moving experience”; “Well done everyone!”; “I admitted to being sceptical at the start...but now I really understand why you said everyone should sing it once”. A retired RAF pilot was impressed with our risk-taking and team effort that resulted in “.....getting us all to fly together – marvellous!”. The battle strategy was admired from as far away as Hook Norton, prompting the observation “A total master stroke to have copies down for the spirituals. Such direct and passionate communication as a result.” Ammunition might have been useful though. Finally, a retired General with a passion for giving the enemy a good pasting, and no stranger to choral conflict, was ecstatic: “It must have been years since I heard a live performance of that piece, and I don’t remember enjoying it half as much as the one last night.”
I’m sure we did our little bit for world peace, if only in our hearts, and as Commanding Officer I certainly rate this achievement amongst our finest. I heard many people say ‘I don’t normally like Tippett, but that was fantastic’. To me that’s progress, and is evidence if any were needed, that it’s so important to keep one’s mind open. I would like to thank everyone for their faith in the project, and for working so hard; it was truly an unforgettable experience.
PH 21 July 2005
Love and best wishes from The Man At The Front (how appropriate).
I will be sharing a couple of poems next time. Take care and stay well.