Walking Backwards for Christmas: Choir and Harmony

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe From Soggyhall, Chapter 4, Edgbaston, November & Early December 1960: “Choir, Harmony, and the Coming of Stan’s ‘Didis’”

Aside from allowing us to finagle Saturday mornings at the ABC Minors Club, our additional swotting paid off in that we did well in our academic studies. But as November drew on, Stan became concerned about choir. He’d been well-schooled in Solfège. In conjunction with the quality of his voice, it had been the basis for his acceptance in the choir. We were doing two Gregorian chants this year (one, with a candlelight entry, at the start of the school Christmas pageant, both as part of a second, separate, school concert program). Stan excelled at both of them.

StanBeyond this, however, he began to get confused. He had some idea of what our director was trying to accomplish in his arrangement of “O Come, Emanuel.”  In an unusual move, the director had assigned me, an eight-year-old and first-year chorister, the opening verse, in chant-like style, as a vocal solo. Perhaps it was his way of making an apology for his attempt to put me on the spot back during the first week of school, or maybe I’d shown him I could handle a vocal solo – or maybe it was St. Cecilia’s intervention.

Whatever the reason, I sang the first verse, chant-like, alone.  The rest of our choir joined me, chant-like on the second verse.

We sang a third, chant-like verse, as the basses from the grammar school scholar chorale sang a drone, called a “bourdon,” beneath us. Thus far, Stan could follow what we were doing. Even in the fourth and fifth verses, sung in organum style as the sopranos, altos and tenors of the scholars came in a parallel fourth below us, Stan was uneasy, but OK, his Solfège training sufficient to “bounce” him back to our part if he got lost. But even here, when the scholars went into four-part harmony and we sang a descant above, he became seriously concerned.

The principles of harmony were still a mystery to him—indeed, harmonic and contrapuntal music seemed quite dissonant to his ears, discontinuous with the concepts of music he’d learned in India. Though he tried, rules of our music were largely lost on him, and he was unsure of what exactly we were trying to accomplish. Particularly threatening for him, among the other pieces we were singing, was that we’d taken on David Willcocks’ arrangements of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” with their celebrated and well-known boy-choir descants – well-known to everyone but Stan, that is, and my poor friend was quite at sea.

He and I spent a growing amount of time at the upright piano in my house, where I analogized between how drones supplemented melody lines in Indian music and how a harmonic tone blended with a melody, could support it the same way, even though it moved around in ways that drones did not.

I showed him which sequences of chords and tones worked in European classical music and which would not.

After showing him some two-fingered illustrations on the keyboard, I took out a pair of recorders and played descant harmonies against the melodies he’d play. He slowly began to understand and appreciate how our way of making music worked, and to grasp how the descant harmonies we were working on at school would ultimately enhance the melodies of choirs we’d accompany, particularly in the Christmas season.

* * *

Our joint efforts (and I did consider them joint—Stan was a most diligent pupil) to teach Stan how the western world’s idea of harmony worked proved successful. I survived my solos intact, (my accent, like many, perhaps most, kids from Brum, was light years away from any proper “received pronunciation” (“RP”), and I had to be coached to sing in an exaggerated RP that our director compared to stage makeup, “ghastly and unnatural up close, but quite lovely off in the distance”). Stan, meanwhile, was, by mid-December, quite an integral part of our choir’s success in both the joint concert with the choir from the secondary grades and as “angels” (thankfully wearing our own dignified robes) in a school Christmas pageant (once again singing “O Come Emanuel” and both of David Willcocks’ arrangements with the secondary school choir).

The following Sunday, Mrs. Gupta had to make an unplanned trip back to India.

I wasn’t too clear on details, but she’d apparently be bringing back two of Stan’s distant cousins. Girls he referred to as his “didis.”  The term literally meant someone who was an elder sister, although it frequently referred more to affection and respect, and had little, if anything, to do with actual consanguinity.

Stan and Dr. Gupta would be left to soldier on alone in Harborne. The Gupta family’s not being together for Christmas was not, to them, any great tragedy, but Dr. Gupta was concerned about Stan’s being home alone for so many hours in the midst of such dire weather.

Stan, meanwhile, had a certain curiosity about Christmas and wanted to see firsthand how it was celebrated. But, could he get Dr. Gupta to go along?

© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.