Two Christmas Projects

Or rather two projects for Advent that deal with two of the major Christmastide feasts, Epiphany and Candlemas. Yes, trees come down earlier every year (perhaps they went up earlier this year, too) and the foodfest came and went in a fog of tiers, but the Christmas story continues (as Chris Lovegrove attests) with festive decoration – and in the liturgy various bits of Infancy narrative – to end just before Lent.

Everything is out of sequence is preparing stuff: projects have their own timetables and participants, run-in time for one thing can be longer than for another. Turkeys are raised before Puddings are made, after all. So I’m going to describe these – ah, the wonders of word-processing – in the order that I did them, and then store this up for beyond Twelfth Night.

The Polonsky/Bodleian Chant Project

Candlemas looks out into the darkness of the darkest days of þe crabbed lentoun – although I see the excellent Clerk of Oxenford can find joy even here, and Thomas Merton too proclaims

For we have found our Christ, our August Here in the zero days before Lent

And this is just some brief reflections and a link…

The podcast itself explains the Polonsky-Bodleian project looking at a multi-layered liturgical MS; watch it by all means. I can’t ask anyone to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” because it was precisely a drawing aside of a curtain that so disturbed and delighted me: the ‘singing teacher’ (I was so billed) with MS scholars and liturgists: Andrew Dunning and Henrike Laehnemann,

What did the participants learn? I can only speak for myself. The brief was to present chant in a manuscript for the people joining the podcast to get the feel of singing from an early source. Not hugely early, but different enough for people to get a feel of the medieval liturgy and its books. They/ we were aided and abetted by the setting and small schola in the dark of St Peter in the East, now part of St Edmund Hall in Oxford, but of course we couldn’t rely on that to do more than afford a quick look into the complexities of performance: here, Henrike’s expertise and clarity told the story of the manuscript and the meaning of the music, and Andrew’s understanding – and physical handling – of the manuscript (Bodleian Libraries MS. Lat liturg. e. 18) and MSS in general brought a high appreciation of the book, its most gothick embellishments being from the nineteenth century.

I look at the podcast and wish I didn’t wave my hands towards the camera quite so much, and wish I didn’t stumble and look down at my text so much either…

Is that what I learned? I learned about MS. Lat liturg. e. 18 and felt I got to grips with how MSS change use as well as context. This guide to the Cistercian ritual of a Provost and clergy, and the nuns and the people shows how difficult producing a liturgical text is, as if the text cannot quite reconcile itself to use by all sorts of people (compare an altar missal even in the newest editions with people’s missals). Even when a rough depiction of the medieval liturgy is the “private breakfast” (to use a phrase from the Reformation) of the celebrant, the needs and the participation of the wider church attendees demand attention. Henrike and Andrew were good at explaining this, setting the book in the history of its uses – and I found myself thinking of those MSS – books of devotion, books of hours, books with the list of the best indulgences near London – I wandered through in the 80s l, that I scathing joked about when they had this text or that, or something scribbled out. I spent too long on the crossword puzzle to see it was actually a biography. This December I learned again the living use of these books, and how that life meant change.

I also found how much I still knew, how much I had forgotten. Perhaps there is another page here for Books of Life and Death.

Journey of the Magi

T S Eliot recorded a sonorous, meditative – may I say parsonically dull? – rendition of one of his most famous shorter poems, John Gielgud gave it more blood if not more warmth (it is not a warm poem) and my good friend Roger Dalrymple asked me in November to join him and others in a version in which he would sew together lines read in various places and by various people. I was gobsmacked at being asked to join in, even more amazed to be asked to read the opening lines:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

Having been given these overture lines, I set about thinking how the poem should be introduced. I felt I was given the compere role: after all they set the theme, don’t they? Yes and no. It was a relief to hear that each participant brings to it their own voice; like a children’s Nativity, there are more kings than three (and why not?), and if I was freezing (I should have worn boots for early morning in a damp meadow) and the weather chill, well, that’s one king’s view. It might be argued that the whole thing should have been filmed in a Summer Santorini – or a ruined Syrian city – but this one king in a foggy field recalls and reinhabits the wintry cold to set the scene. And on reading the poem through for clues as to how to deliver those lines, I saw very starkly that it is the last line, not the first three, that provides the tone.

Gielgud’s petulant tone tells us how much the mage has lost as much as how much there is to gain in the Theophany – costing, as Eliot says elsewhere, not less than everything. So I am happy with my slightly moany start to the poem. Transport lets you down; plans change; it is not what you expected when you get there: the same kind of travel as anyone might have – until nearly half way through, when the feeling that this was all folly changes. In the Epiphany we look out over the dark fields – the little torches of lesser festivals almost lost in the dark – towards Lent and Easter.

…The lights that we have kindled,

The light of altar and of sanctuary;

Small lights of those who meditate at midnight…

T S Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

How much of this year has seemed folly? How much more of this is there to do?

Preparing for the performance – selfishly not counting Roger’s editorial time and the other participants’ efforts – entailed a very close reading. I tried it first of all as recitation – almost as I might read a poem from Isaiah in Church. Maybe that was what Eliot was trying; it certainly didn’t work for me. So as I explained I went out and tried it a number of times in various ways – with me in camera, with the frosty sunrise on Warneford Meadow along the Old Road down from Shotover, in a chilly fog, without me to be seen. These were more successful, and I think this was because I wanted more than just “saying my lines” (more echoes of the Primary School Nativity) I looked at the whole poem, went back to Matthew’s Gospel, tried to see the white horse galloping, the gamblers. But the ones without me in perhaps were bloodless: the speaker was needed, just as Eliot’s rendition seems to me. I sent various copies to Roger for him to choose, and his choice works, I think. Working with Roger reminded me sharply of reading the speech from Gawain’s guide for the Wild Spaces Wild Magic group when we went up to the (possible) Green Chapel, and how the different translations – and for Roger the ME text – needed acting more than some kind of ecclesial declamation.

I found working with the T S Eliot so challenging and so revelatory – is the word fun permissible? – that I set about doing a version just for close friends of Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. All those long echoes… and the dear love of friends. Cooper’s poem, is much more like the secular Yule and, as this bleakest year dies, a warming message, hoping against hope, maybe…

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