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Spare a thought for us choral singers during carol season

7 December 2015

3:38 PM

7 December 2015

3:38 PM

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and I’m sure you’re all looking forward to a damn fine sing-along at your respective local carol services.

Spare a thought, though, at this time of year, for the pros and semi-pros who will, like as not, be charged to fine-tune the outpourings of your festive cheer. For the great majority of choral singers, the 24(ish) days of Advent are, more than anything else, a matter of counting down just how many services are left before a day off in what is bloody nearly January.

Singers do enjoy the Christmas repertoire: of course we do. But Advent hadn’t even started when I set out for the first of four musical engagements in one 24-hour window. By the end of Sunday I’d sung ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ three times. And ‘Lo, he comes’ at least twice. Likewise, the whole set of Advent antiphons. And the Advent litany. (Forlorn stats, what’s more, that do not include rehearsal run-throughs.)

I’m already booked in for at least another dozen gigs between – what’s today? – the 7th and (so far) the evening of the 22nd. A whole variety of chapel services, a parish church or two, a choral society, a military regiment, a couple of pubs, and even a little something for the BBC. I’m even volunteering (sorry, comrades) at the service of a livery company.


And I’ve got it easy. One of my mates – I kid you not – has already done 12 carol-related performances, and has a further 26 to go. Another recorded his choir’s Christmas album back in June.

The problem, alas, is not actually the choral music. We can handle that. It’s, um, the congregational numbers. The compulsory standards. The bellowy crowd-pleasers. Quite a few events – the more ‘fun’ (unpaid) ones – consist of almost nothing but this stuff. Which for the altos and the basses, at least, is unsustainable.

It’s the unison verses that do the real physical and emotional damage: ‘Hark the herald’, it is overwhelmingly agreed, is a de facto crime against humanity. Then you have the harmony verses: you try making your bass notes audible against an entire cathedralful of muscular Christianity. Descants, too: rarely the ones you’re familiar with, and sometimes not even the ones that you’ve got in your music folder. Arrangements newly churned out by the choirmaster in question, handed to you as you walk in with the writing still wet, and bringing down death-stares from the ladies on the Dec. side who preferred the version you’d been doing for the last 400 years. Anything with the word ‘donkey’ in it. ‘Christmas’ too, is something of a cautionary indicator.

And of course the fact that most congregational carols are – surprise, surprise – just basically hymns. Long hymns at that. Often enough encompassing what seems like a potted history of the world. With mawkish Victorian words. Few people would want to sit through an entire evening’s worth of hymns – let alone be the ones who have to sing them.

This, as one colleague noted recently, is why a lot of people actually quite like singing Rutter.

Hell, none of us wants to be a total Scrooge about this. We’d all like to share in the festive magic with the rest of you. But I’d be lying if I said that most years, by the time we get to Midnight Mass and/or Christmas morning, we weren’t all well and truly sick of the entire business.

So this Christmas, when it comes to that last verse of ‘Adeste Fideles’, take a good deep breath on behalf of the weary singers there in front of you, and really give it some – so they don’t have to. I assure you it’ll be very much appreciated.

A S H Smyth is a freelance writer and choral singer. He intends to cut the season slightly short this year with a trip to Devon, where he’s just found out his mother in law wants him to sing on Christmas morning.


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