Behind the Advent windows: the glamour of carolling

It was one of those lean Christmases where you grab any gig that comes your way…

It was one of those lean Christmases where you grab any gig that comes your way. And when I was booked to put a quartet together to sing Christmas carols for the launch of a fishing tackle shop, I seized the chance. It was in a super posh part of town, and inside the cream stuccoed building there weren’t too many people wandering around wearing waders, rustling greaseproof paper, or slurping from thermoses. None, in fact. Instead, lots of people dressed up to the nines and looking as if most of the time they were more comfortable wearing plus-fours and shouting at Labradors.

Lully Lula started well, then someone forgot a repeat and there was a bit of shuffling and an unintended element of Hindemith about the whole thing.

I had not left quite enough time for us to rehearse, let me state this boldly up front. I’d dug out au gratin copies of Carols for Choirs containing all the old favourites. Shoe-horned into a stock room, the four of us planned what we were going to sing and the whole thing got off to a cracking start with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Lully Lula started well, then someone forgot a repeat and there was a bit of shuffling and an unintended element of Hindemith about the whole thing. We redeemed ourselves with Silent Night as the store filled up with a forest of quilted jackets and red trousers.

Personent Hodie is always a winner, I find, and it’s got lots of verses so you can just carry on going, and it uses up a good lot of time when you are running out of inspiration. The only problem is that in the edition we had, the extra verses were not written out under the notes. They were over the page. So you do the first Personent Hodie, all good, every syllable written neatly under the notes; then you get the second verse In mundo nascitur, yup fine; and then you’re on your own and you think, “Oh, how hard can this be?” On to Magi tres venerunt, flapping the page over from tune to words and back again, yeah, on a roll here, approaching the home strait.

I get to about the seventh verse and I realise I’ve miscalculated; I’ve used too many of the allotted notes for too few words, and I can see this precipice looming ahead like in The Italian Job, in this case the precipice being the end of the notes. I’m running out of notes but I still having almost an entire sentence of Latin syllables to sing. And as you’re hurtling towards this, you become aware that the other singers beside you – the alto, who’s been mucking about all the way through, the tenor who isn’t really concentrating because he’s been trying to grab canapés as waiters sway past, and the bass who wasn’t feeling well due to last night’s prawn bhoona – all have suddenly spotted this precipice themselves. And there’s this collective rising sense of panic that you know is going to erupt in the sort of inappropriate laughter one gets at a funeral when you really, really shouldn’t be giggling. And the tightening in one’s chest of dread and hysteria knowing you are one to a part and there is no-one else to save you. And you’re going to end up having to sing an entire sentence on one note and you know, just know, you are all going to laugh.

It didn’t help that there was a distracting television screen downstairs in the shop that was displaying adverts for products to do with fishing tackle. At one point on the massive screen, there was a maggot wiggling on the end of a fishing hook, huge and monstrous in close up. And it was one of those moments where you think you’re going to have to stage a heart attack to get out of the fact that you have too many words to too few notes, and there’s a giant maggot taunting you from below, and you are laughing and cannot sing, and your musical life flashes before your eyes. You want to rewind to the time where you thought you could get away with a quick half hour run-through beforehand, and replace that decision with one that factors in more time, less music, and a paper bag to put over one’s shamed head.

Christmas was redeemed with a gig a week later outside a North London butcher’s shop

Christmas was redeemed, however, with a gig a week later outside a North London butcher’s shop where we got free packets of sausages, and no-one noticed that I went wrong in Hark the Herald at the moment when I spotted Charles Dance queuing up to collect his turkey. It’s the small things that make it all worthwhile.

Gratuitous picture of Charles Dance’s chest

They didn’t ask us back at the fishing tackle place the following year, but that’s ok because the butcher’s shop seem quite keen on repeated bookings, and there’s always the chance of a knockdown broiler and a celebrity sighting. The jobbing singer’s life is one of glamour, all the way.

Every day reveals something new and exclusive to A Musical Advent. We have been so excited to put together these videos for you, and we really hope you enjoy them.

A Musical Advent is produced by Joanna Sleight © 2021


My friend, David

Today was David Bevan’s Requiem and I couldn’t be there because I was isolating. This has made me terribly sad so instead I sat at home and wrote about him, drawing on a letter I wrote to him when he retired from the Holy Redeemer a few years ago. I have added to and elaborated on it, but am fairly unashamed at not wanting to waste good material. Forgive me if any of you have heard some of this before.

David Bevan had been Director of Music at the Holy Redeemer, Chelsea for not much more than a year in 1984, when, for the first – and I think the last time ever – he put up a notice at the back of church saying SINGERS WANTED: AUDITIONS. Mostly he had relied easily on family, friends, and singers who turned up one day and never left. From week to week he had only a vague idea of who might appear at the 10am Sunday rehearsal, but somehow it was rare that he didn’t manage to conjure an 8-part polyphonic Mass out of the ragtag and bobtails who were there.

My mother, not normally a pushy ‘ballet mum’, dragged an unwilling me to the studio at 18 Cheyne Row, next door to where we lived at number 16, where the Holy Redeemer choir rehearsed in those days, courtesy of a member of the choir, Walter Coles, whose house it was. David listened smiling as I haltingly and breathily murdered my way through Caro Mio Ben. He took a punt on the shy, awkward 12-year-old who had just started singing lessons at school, and he let me into the choir that very day. His tendency not to notice people like me who didn’t make much of an impression meant it was about five years before he actually gave me any music. I managed somehow either to look at someone else’s score or one of the resident fierce sopranos would bark: “David! You haven’t given Suzy any music. Again.” Perhaps it was an unconscious attempt at discouraging someone from staying in the choir. He didn’t really like booting people out, though, and his other technique was to suggest a singer go and concentrate on their solo career. I seem to remember he said this only twice in about 35 years, and this was to the same person both times. But fortunately, by design or by luck, David did a pretty lousy job of discouraging me because it is 37 years on, and I am still there.

I have always felt so grateful to David for providing me with the equivalent of a cathedral chorister training which, being a girl, I could never have had in the mid-1980s. He discouraged us from using pencils (“remember it”) and drilled us during rehearsal in plainchant, which both fascinated and terrified me. His erudition and humour were evident even to a green schoolgirl, and his impressions of the celebrated former parish priest, Canon Alfonso de Zulueta (“My dear”), were legendary, as well as impressions of other parish priests whom he outlasted in his long tenure.

The jargon and the jokes that David invented – a choir member wearing something particularly striking was said to be wearing a ‘qui tollis’ jacket in order to be given a solo; and accusations were frequently made of there being a bassus vagans rumbling waywardly somewhere on a lower part. Choir members came and went, and some came back after years away, and others just stayed put. Some quit, some died, and some looked as though they had died but in fact were still crooning on the alto line.

One by one his darling children appeared, and he conducted with one hand, played a chord on the organ with another, and fielded a succession of small persons intent both on hurling themselves over the balustrade and shredding to oblivion au gratin copies of Renaissance motets. In their turn, each of these children wore the qui tollis jackets and grew into the talented and delightful people they are today.

David took the time to tutor me in harmony and counterpoint for my music A-level and for a special paper I chose to take in 16th Century Sacred Polyphony. I was a terrible harmony student, and he was the sole reason I passed the exam. For my course work I catalogued examples of music I was actively involved in over many months. I don’t suppose a huge number of candidates that year had three notebooks of closely-written lines detailing hundreds of wondrous motets and masses of the Renaissance that they had sung, Sunday after Sunday. It was a marvellous saturation in polyphony and chant, and such a privilege.

The parish of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More had the gift of David’s musicality and presence for nearly 35 years; at parishioners’ baptisms, their family funerals, their receptions into the Church, their First Holy Communions, and at every celebration and occasion in the Church’s year. David was there with us in the choir loft as we watched in horror (and, it has to be said, with a modicum of hilarity) as the Master of Ceremonies caught fire one year during a procession to the Altar of Repose and had to be doused with water from the baptismal font; as Lord Longford fell sideways into the confessional during the Easter Vigil (twice in the one service); and as Fr Nolan preached inspiring sermons from the little book of Patience Strong. He directed us in concerts in Chelsea and further afield; at nuptials in glamorous places from Brussels to Florence, where the wedding guests included crowned heads of Europe; and smoked rollies and drank pints with us in the Cross Keys and the Cooper’s Arms. He saw many of us grow up and inspired countless singers through his dedicated work at the Holy Redeemer, through his school teaching, his compositions, and through his humour and lightly-worn intellect.

David and Clare have born and brought up some of the top singers of today, from the days when as tinies they were lovingly handed from singer to singer, given a gradual to play with or a wedding order of service to draw on, while we all sang and David played a voluntary. That choir loft had its moments of drama but lots and lots of times of pure joy too. And the papal medal he was awarded, and which was finally presented to him just a few months ago in Dorchester was fitting recognition of the music that he brought to so many people for such a long time. Liturgical music in churches across the country owes him a huge debt, and the Benemerenti Medal rightly honours that. I was so pleased that I could be there on that sunny, late summer day and speak, which would turn out to be my goodbye.

His children have always been his absolute joy, and his love and pride in them was always in evidence, often to the point of his being moved to tears. There is no greater testimony to the love they feel for their dad than how they have looked after him throughout the time of his increasing infirmity, and particularly in his final months, being at his side, caring for him with humour and compassion, and reflecting back the deep love he felt for them.

My family’s connection and David’s with the Holy Redeemer goes further back than even his being there. My parents were married there in the 1950s and David’s aunt played the organ. There was no choir for them because Dad was considered a heathen in those days as non-Catholic, so they were only allowed an organist. David played for my sister’s wedding, my brother’s wedding, directed the choir at my own, and played for my daughters christening – all at the Holy Redeemer. He is threaded through every milestone of my life.

I owe him so much for his loyalty to me over the years, and for fostering in me a profound love and understanding of music of the Renaissance which is the focus of much of the singing I do professionally. And the choir, the rehearsals, the music and the Masses never felt tired. The joy in the music and the liturgy, and the sheer fun that he inspired Sunday after Sunday, continued to be deeply life affirming for me throughout the time he was organist at the Holy Redeemer. His legacy of that joy in church music still resonates there today. I among many will miss him very much. Rest in Peace, David, and thank you for the priceless gifts of music and friendship.

Suzy Robinson 9 December 2021