MILITARY WIVES Choirs throughout the country, are hoping that their latest album, Home for Christmas, will both celebrate the nation’s best-loved Christmas carols and help listeners to “take a step back and remember the importance of family, love, and harmony”.
The 12-track recording represents a triumph of artistic and technical wizardry, combining 1006 voices from 65 Wives choirs, recorded in several locations under the batons of three distinguished conductors: Hilary Davan Wetton, Will Dawes, and Mark De-Lisser. The choirs — which had their roots in the TV series The Choir, with Gareth Malone — had a No.1 single in 2012 with “Wherever You Are”. Their debut album that year featured five choirs, and the following album 24 choirs: proof of the venture’s continuing rise in popularity, and the need it fulfils.
Before this year’s ambitious project got under way, wives told their stories and named their favourite carols, and were then involved in updating some of the familiar lyrics to reflect what the season meant to 21st-century families, many of whom would be separated at Christmas. So “Home for Christmas” is set to the tune of “Hark! the herald angels sing”, but includes sentiments such as these:
So come on home we need you near,
Come on home we want you here.
Home for Christmas you should be,
Home with friends and family.
Purists might pale, but changing and updating lyrics to accord with the times is not a new departure, Dr Andrew Gant observes. He is a former organist, choirmaster, and composer at the Chapel Royal, and has written on Christmas carols. “Our choral tradition has evolved over countless centuries,” he points out.
“Tunes move around between different sets of words, changing subtly as they go. Sometimes, they change to suit the style and fashion of a particular period: we sing “Hark! the herald angels sing,” but Charles Wesley’s poem originally began “Hark, how all the welkin rings!”
The choirs directed by Davan Wetton, one of Britain’s most versatile conductors, include the City of London Choir. The experience causes him to reflect on what it is about singing in a choir that is uniquely fulfilling. “A lot of those singers work in the City in very stressful jobs, and one of the things that’s so good about the choir is that they come to the rehearsal and just have to forget everything else. You can’t sing and simultaneously think about all the other anxieties in your life.
”I think we’ve underestimated the power of choirs in the past 25 years. In the deep depressions of the 1920s and ’30s, male-voice choirs in Wales were sustained by the contrast between the excitement of singing and the ghastly experience they were having outside of it. It’s one of those things you can commit yourself to, mind and body, and, at the point of doing so, it’s an enormously therapeutic experience.”
The shared context of the Wives made it “a very powerful business”, he said. “They weren’t singing about nymphs and shepherds, but about things that mattered to them very deeply in the real world. The texts are identifying a sense of Christmas as being a particularly difficult time if you are separated from your loved ones. And, even if you’re not, it’s a time when the importance of the family is very marked, and when feelings run high. Hopefully, there’s an element of catharsis about that — in a nice way — which will enable them to come to terms with those things.”
HE DESCRIBES the level of sincerity and authenticity in the singing as palpable, and believes that it will be audible on the disc to anyone listening to it: “I’m proud of many of the choral recordings in particular that I’ve done, but none of the choirs I have ever conducted before have been singing about things so deeply and immediately personal to their daily experience of living.”
As a military wife, Lexi Obee-Kendall can identify with that. A junior doctor, now with a small baby, she works long hours that, combined with postings, make it difficult to make friends and find support. “I’d never sung before, but heard about the choir and thought I had nothing to lose,” she says. “I’ve not been in the choir two years yet, but the amount of fun we have is amazing, and I’ve made lifelong friends. Army wives come and go — we move around all the time — but the choir is the one thing that links us. Wherever we are in the world, I feel confident I could walk into a choir anywhere, and the ladies will take me in.”
The title track of the album, “Home for Christmas”, speaks most powerfully to her. “I love it because it’s a great tune, a great classic, but the words are really poignant for military families. I guess all we really want at the end of the day is to be around family at Christmas.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Allie Frencer, who has memories of Christmas 2012, when the Miitary Wives’ single “Wherever You Are” was released, and her husband was serving in Afghanistan. “It was very moving when I heard that on the radio,” she remembers. “It made me very sad sometimes, but I also thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’” She has transferred from one choir to another with different postings, and now sings with one of the smallest choirs in the network, at Leeming, in North Yorkshire.
The Wives’ shared context is a powerful factor, she confirms. “A lot of the songs in our repertoire obviously reflect that aspect of our lifestyle, and when you perform them it can be quite emotional.” Her favourite on the Christmas album is “Once in Royal”, where traditional verses have been combined with updated verses. “I like it because it retains a lot of the Christian values of the carol, but also makes it pertinent to our choir of military wives.”
The Leeming choir joined the choirs of York and Dishforth to record the album at the York Centre for Early Music in St Margaret’s, Walmgate — “a beautiful acoustic, and everyone had a wonderful time.”
DAVAN WETTON describes the esprit de corps among the wives as impressive: it was something that contributed enormously to the zest and spirit of the album. The process was complex: each of the three conductors had to deliver exactly the same points of attack and release so that the individual recordings could be superimposed on each other in a way that was wholly convincing.
That was challenging, he says, praising the calibre of the producers and editors of the recording, and the singers themselves for their dedication. “I was very glad to say that the task of making the consonants absolutely unanimous, and the ensemble sounding live, wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be, as the choirs were very attentive and concerned about text. If you’re going to have this sort of recording, which depends on what it’s saying in terms of words as well as music, the text has to be really, really clear.”
WHEN Sara Scott, who is on her third Military Wives Choir, heard the first cut of the recording, she found it emotional. “Hearing our 1000 voices was phenomenal,” she says, and acknowledges — as they all do — the shared context and common experience of the choirs. “When you go into a new choir, you don’t have to explain to someone what it means when someone is going to be deployed, or away on exercise.
“It means you can’t call them — you have to wait for them to call you, and there can be maybe a week between calls; you’re having to run the house on your own . . . They’ve all been there and done that. You can wear your heart on your sleeve a bit more, and there’s a deeper understanding of just how tough this life can be, sometimes — and not only when they’re away. Families play a big part at Christmas, and the build-up is exciting: you lose a bit of that sparkle when you have to toughen up and face it on your own.”
THE Revd Martyn Gough, Deputy Chaplain to the Fleet, checks the schedules and confirms that, in the approach to Christmas, there will be 9000 service personnel away from home, including those serving on ships at sea on Christmas Day. The challenges for these are even greater, because communications at sea are more complex, and band-width means that Skyping is out of the question.
He has considerable experience of separation himself, and remembers spending a Christmas in Afghanistan when he had two young children. And it was not just Christmas: he was away from August until the following March. “It’s a long time away, but it’s the way we live our lives,” he says. “Sometimes, the great hero comes back home to find that they’ve actually managed pretty well, and been well supported back in the UK. Groups like Military Wives, who share the same challenges and the same tensions, are a real focus for those living in married quarters.”
IN A new departure, Military Wives choirs toured the cathedrals of Winchester, Durham, Bradford, Norwich, Exeter, Lichfield, and Hereford, in November, to accompany the release of the album on 2 December, and to sing a range of other songs from their ever-growing repertoire. But, for those who were part of the 1006 voices who made Home for Christmas, the wonder remains, in Lexi Obee-Kendall’s words, “the thrill of thinking that my little voice is in there somewhere”.
Sue Daniels, who chairs the Military Wives Choirs Foundation, commented: “We are delighted with the continued achievements and growth of the Military Wives Choirs network. The festive season can be a difficult time, and, by creating Home for Christmas, Military Wives are supporting each other through music, and extending this unity to families throughout the UK and across the world.”
Davan Wetton admits that he had no idea what to expect when he encountered the groups for the first time. To get the best out of an unauditioned choir, he says, you have to identify the things you can change, and let go of the things you can’t. “Unless you’re entirely incompetent, any choir will get better during the course of rehearsals.
“And you have to be clear about the things you can really improve, and the things you ask them to do that they might not be able to improve. You try very hard to stretch them as far as they can possibly be stretched, but not beyond that part. When you’ve gone a bit further than you thought you ever could, it’s obviously very rewarding. We came to the end of our recording session with everyone thinking they had done better than they ever thought they could.”
He concludes: “It bears out what I have always believed: that anybody who really wants to sing can do so. One in 24,000 people is tone deaf. That leaves you 23,999 people who can sing, and that’s my view of how it should go. If more people sang more, we would have a more contented society.”
The Military Wives Choirs’ new CD, Home for Christmas, is available now.