Radio: A note to follow Soh

13 February 2008

by Edward Wickham

FOR ANYONE who sings in a choir, it is hard to imagine that once — not so long ago — choral singing was encouraged as a way of keeping people out of the pub. When I was a chorister, the headmaster of my choir school taught us all the Red Ingle classic “Cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women”: a song whose spirit we innocently entered into without a thought. But, in the mid-19th century, souls would thrill to songs such as “O water for me”, and “Touch not the cup”.

The Revd Roy Jenkins — presenter of John Curwen and his Moveable Doh (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) — claimed to remember a song from his childhood that valiantly attempted a rhyme with “cocoa”, a drink which helps you to bear life’s “yoke-o”. Such songs were part of the Church’s crusade against the spiritual intemperance of the public house and the music hall, which, in 19th-century Britain, were seen to be luring the masses away from church and chapel.

Crucial in the battle between booze and the Bible was the accessibility of new songs. Participatory singing was seen to elevate the character, and divert the soul from carnal pleasures. Letters telling of the transforming power of singing frequently appeared in the press, a Victorian take on an ancient theme whereby particular forms of music are associated with certain emotions: gentility, belligerence, love, and anger.

It was an ancient system that pedagogues adopted when it came to developing a system guaranteed to work on even the most musically illiterate. The tonic sol-fa system, in which the syllables Doh, Re, Mi, and so on, stand for degrees of the musical scale (as famously demonstrated by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music), was first developed by Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century, to teach children how to memorise chant.

Various musicians in the Victorian period adapted the system, but none more successfully than the Revd John Curwen, a Congregationalist minister, whose boast was that even he — who knew nothing at all of music — could understand it.

More than a century later, many amateur singers still make sense of the great choral works by using the tonic sol-fa system. As one of Mr Jenkins’s guests admitted, even someone who “doesn’t know a B flat from a bull foot” can get the hang of it. Among such company, a musician with FTSC (Fellow of the Tonic Sol-fa College) after his name is more to be trusted than one with a B.Mus.

Radio 4 is currently hosting a season of programmes on Pakistan, and the timing could hardly be more appropriate. For those not familiar with the history of Pakistan, the two documentaries by Owen Bennett Jones, Uncovering Pakistan: A leap of faith (3 and 10 February) provided an essential guide.

It is not a happy story, as is demonstrated by the titles of some recent autobiographies by Pakistani politicians: A Dream Gone Sour, and A Withering State. For a country born suddenly from a distinct set of historical circumstances, the central dilemma is: what is Pakistan about? What is its cultural, religious, and political raison d’ être?

It is a question that many who seek to dominate it, or separate from it, are asking with unsettling energy and persistence.

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