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Back to the old joy and innocence

by
20 December 2013

Carols reconnect people with mixed emotions and depths, says Paul Vallely

AT MY son's school Christmas concert, a close-harmony group of the older boys performed a version of the Angelus which was new to me. The teacher introduced Franz Biebl's Ave Maria with a striking story. It had been written by a fireman, he said, for a firemen's choir.

The piece is a haunting setting of the Angelus prayer, with sonorous Aves. Throughout the rendition, I could not escape the thought of a group of fire-fighters who met to sing at night to subsume the tensions of the day into the luxuriant harmonies of this gem of 20th-century church music.

We live in a time when skills are increasingly developed and exercised through a profession. The impulse of the amateur has become the realm of the dilettante. Friends who are professional actors offer only mild disdain when amateur dramatics are mentioned. Yet the season of Christmas provides something of a reminder of the fact that participation in a community - and in the forms of art and ritual which celebrate that - is something central to our humanity. The division of professional labour in an indirect way diminishes that.

Canon Alan Billings touched on this in Thought for the Day on Radio 4 this week, in which he spoke about school nativity plays, carol services, and concerts to celebrate Christmas. Most particularly, he offered the example of the Sheffield Carols, for which people gather in country pubs on the edge of the Peak District to sing a singular set of carols that are peculiar to the area.

Locals say that folk carols were driven out of the area's churches in the 19th century, when the Tractarian Movement brought robed choirs, high-church medievalism, and music played on organs into the churches. But it was not just the old folk carols that were driven out, but also many of the people who sang them. They had been turned into a kind of audience at worship. Feeling driven out of the church, the people took to the pub for their carolling.

Yet the mystique of the carol lingers. Partly this is because, as one vicar pointed out at another carol service, the nuggets of theology buried in the carol - "veiled in flesh the Godhead see" - reconnect us with the depths beneath the shallow busyness of our contemporary Christmas.

Partly, however, it is because it also reconnects us with the unspoiled potential of childhood. We go to the school nativity play to see our children or grandchildren, and they make us reimagine the story through their uncompromised eyes. Christmas celebrations, as Canon Billings pointed out, lead to mixed emotions because we get caught up in the joy and excitement of the children, but something also triggers memories of our own long-forgotten childhood, whose innocence was lost in the slow attritions of life.

It is not all our own culpability. When I got home, I looked up Biebl on the internet. He was not a fireman, it turned out, but an assistant professor of choral music at the Mozarteum, the celebrated academy of music in Salzburg. But he had had in his parish choir a fireman, who in 1964 asked him to compose something for his workplace choir at the fire station. The Ave Maria was the result. So the teacher's story was half true. The piece was an intermingling of the educated talents of a professional and the enthusiasm of a group of amateurs. Perhaps there is a lesson in that, too.

Paul Vallely is the author of Pope Francis: Untying the knots (Bloomsbury, 2013).

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