About the Choir
Sing With Us
The Choir of the English Baroque, had long been accustomed to singing in France. Their repertoire was large, so could be European at the laisse-tombe of a chapeau, and their pièce de résistance was Le Chant Des Oiseaux1, by Clément Jannequin, in the centre of their consciousness, where, for many weeks, they had frrr'd, frian'd, qui-ra-la'd and farirariron'd with so aviarogenous a demeanour as to frighten the pigeons from their litter-pecking and cause an alarming drop in the sparrow population of London, such was the Europhobic constitution of these chirpy Cockney flockers, and with such enthusiasm that, had their practice made perfect at an early stage in re-hearsals, their members would not have risked so much the shredding of the tips of the tongues and the teeth and the lips that is unsurprisingly the just desserts of those who meddle in the affairs of other species, they not having beaks and all, therefore having to put to unaccustomed use all those other mouth-parts which are habitually more specialised in the semi-quaver run on some Latin syllable, the context of which the average London concert-goer2 would no doubt have forgotten some bars earlier.
The choir's performance the previous year in Tournon sur Rhône, had been delivered in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. Indeed, the review in the local news-paper had been so complimentary as to engender a solid comfort in the repertoire and a desire, notwithstanding any cultural differences between the lands of Condrieu and Crozes-Hermitage and the more suburban and calciferous environs of the Champagne and Chablis classes in the vicinity of Sens3, to deliver a similarly-toned, yet subtly-differentiated, European Musical Tour.
As on this occasion no char-a-banc had been procured for the journey, the singers had variously made their way to the locality by a variety of motor-cars, railway-trains and other such contraptions as would trans-locate them in good order to sing the very next day, such was the tendency to bolt on the holi-day to the end of the trip rather than the beginning.
A further trepidation was that the tendency to congregate in the market-square the previous evening would lead to unwise consumption of the sea-food or exceedingly monstrous indulgence in the fermented pressings of the grape, or indeed in the proletarian harvest of the barley-field, the grain having been allowed to go off then all boiled up and interfered with by monks who, while generally confined to the neighbouring Belgium, are allowed to peddle their wares beyond those borders, even to the extent of painting their advert-ising onto mirrors in bars.
'O for shame! – should you not all be getting early nights?' said John Dashwood4 gently.
'Aye, aye' said some.
'I dare say', said Cartwright, 'but 'twould be rude to interrupt a dégustation before the gust has been completely removed, lest it re-grow, as a canker in the night.'
Willoughby5 appeared not to hear, as he showed off what appeared to be a giant chemistry-set to a crowd of interested onlookers. The beer Kwak appears to be saleable only in a tall bulbous glass, the bottom of which nestles in a hemi-spherical depression in the wooden holder, and the top of which is held in place by an annular neck of the wood; yet, on inclining the apparatus for the purpose of delivering the beer to the mouth of the drinker, the bulb exhibits a tendency, or at least threatens to do so when the drinker is still on the first one – and not, I venture to say, thereafter –, to fall out.
'I'd forgotten how happy I am when I drink al-cohol', exclaimed Marianne6 – 'I feel absolutely wonderful'.
'This is to be a story of sense and sensibility, not nonsense and insensibility', warned Elinor7 sensibly.
'Nonsense!' cried Marianne – 'My sensibilities are still sensible'.
'Men forget how good they look in dinner jackets – were they not to forget this, then they would wear them all the time', continued Elinor, sensibly changing the subject.
'Now you're talking sense', concurred Marianne – 'Put a man in uniform and – kazoom – I'm a pushover'.
And so it proved, except that neither uniform nor push was necessary. One consolation remained for them, to which the exigence of the moment gave more than usual propriety; it was that of strolling with all possible reluctance to White-cross Cottage, which was a comfortable walk yet obfuscated somewhat in the umbral regions beyond the pissoir. Marianne had at first the advantage, but a false step brought her suddenly to the ground. A gentleman carrying a digital camera, and with two pints of Kwak playing around him, offered some assistance, but perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, he needed do no more than open the cottage door and thereby facilitate Marianne's passage therein.
As they made the most of their meagre plumbing, they recalled the grand environs of nearby Barton Park, where Sir John Middleton8 and Sir Robert Ferrars were among the guests. The leafy surroundings of Norland, with its maltings and abundant ale-houses, were an even more distant memory. But they derived some entertainment from the pet rodents at the cottage – the larger ones may actually have been dogs, as evidenced by yapping rather than squeaking, and the smaller ones may have been part of a brass-ière, but no serious mishap seemed to arise there-from.
There were rumours of mishap, how-ever, from an unscheduled and – by most accounts – untimely re-hearsal of farirariron and such-like twitterings to be performed the morrow, from persons the identity of which is destined to forever remain a mystery.
Unaccustomed as the choir was to re-hearsing at 9:30 in the morning – re-hearsing suggesting that one was dead, then became alive, them was dead again – this was the hour, or to be exact the half-hour, which indeed it was commenced at, such were the schedulings to be fitted in at the Cathédrale St Étienne, which by all accounts has an association football team playing there in the afternoons and a rock band of the same name playing alternate Fridays.
Tradition demands, however, that some environmental difficulties beset re-hearsals in unfamiliar venues, and so it proved with the indestructible background music and the background lights which rendered the conductor a black shadow in a sea of glare, with not even a pair of fluorescent bracelets nor a <<baguette illuminique>> to shew the beat. But finally the audio-phonic electro-button was located to quell the chanting monks – no doubt rowdy from a spell of quality control on Delirium Tremens, Satan and Mort Subite (not necessarily in that order) – and the choir became accustomed to their own internal beat, which they synchronise by sticking up their aerials into the emissions of the international atomic radio clock. Except for Mrs Ferrars, who keeps time by writing "+1 hour" with a ball-point pen on her wrist adjacent to her wristwatch.
'Gruch who lust, but none deny', said Thomas9, regally but with the timbre of an axe-murderer.
'O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength', replied Mrs Dashwood10 faithfully.
'I was glad when they said unto me: We Will Go', stated Edward Ferrars11, enthusiastically.
'If love's a sweet passion, why does it torment?', asked Colonel Brandon12, relevantly.
'Are they restrain'd?', retorted Mr Harris13 rhetorically.
'Tell me but yours, I'll mention my day, let us but fix on some day', added Fanny Dashwood14, expectantly.
'Maidens, willow branches wear', offered Lucy Steele15 enigmatically.
'If thou canst get but thither, there grows the flow'r of peace', advised her sister Anne, narcotically.
'Bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale; bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale, but bring us in good ale!' – interjected Willoughby frantically.
Over the period of lunch-eon, the choir became aware of the extravagant pre-publicity for the concert in the local news-paper – not only were they going to sing the European Tour pieces; the core of the performance would be Handel's Messiah, Bach's Mass in B minor, and varied works from Hildegard de Bingen through to Rütti and beyond. But it required no other consideration of probabilities to make it natural that the audience would be reading the Pro-gramme rather than the news-paper, and in that technicality of the Trades Descriptions (France) Act of 1948 was in such very confidence the proof of that assumption.
Most of the singers partook of a light lunch-eon, and, although a very few succumbed to the temptation of two courses, no-one threatened the probability of their remaining alert for the afternoon re-hearsal by what would have been, had it happened, the mistake of a third course. Indeed, it would barely have been possible to fit in a heavy intake of comestibles, given the difficulties of transforming requests to the waiter into deliveries to the table. Even the quite fluent French speakers in the group met with a standard reply of 'show me', that is to say, point with a non-Gallic finger to the appropriate line on the menu. It is indeed fortunate that no-one ordered the <<Menu Suppositorique>>.
'Le bruit plaisent aux plus futiles', asserted Mrs Jennings16, with a forced vivacity.
'Et l'art nous domine; sa flamme illumine le rire et les pleurs', agreed Betty17.
'Rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan plan plan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan, rataplan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan, rataplan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan, rataplan plan plan, rataplan, rataplan plan plan!', muttered someone at the back.
'Er singt so süss', commented Charlotte Palmer18.
'Did you just call me a peasant?' – exclaimed Lucy Steele, her cheeks flushing and her eyes glinting in no niggardly proportion.
'Muchas profecias lo han profetizado, y aun es nuestros dias lo hemos alcançado', explained John Dashwood.
'Farirariron et farirariron, fereli joli; ti ti ti ti ti ti piti, chou chou chou chou chouti thou-i thou-i', added Thomas Palmer19 confidently.
'Que dis-tu?', asked someone, quite reasonably in the circumstances.
'Frian frian frian frian, tar tar tar tar, ticun ticun, velici velici, tu tu tu tu, qui lara qui lara, coqui coqui, fi ti fi ti, oi ti oi ti, huit huit huit huit, turi turi,teo teo teo teo, fouquet fouquet, trr turi turi, qrr qui bi qui bi, frr fiti fiti, coucou coucou', came the enigmatic reply.
'Ma fin est mon commencement, et mon commencement ma fin', concluded John Dashwood.
The choir was made very welcome by a canon of the cathedral, who told us of his long experience man and boy, and his pleasure at hearing the re-hearsal. And it was no large matter to replicate that satisfaction to the performance, via the small matters of a good lie-down and the rooms with the wall-papers.
The market-square of Sens was set about with a number of bars and restaurants. It had long been the custom of the choir to visit such establishments in that sequence, namely bars first – to quench the thirst, lubricate the larynx and stimulate the appetite – then restaurants after. But what works for the British high-street tandoori or balti-house is not so suitable for provincial French restaurants: the food more subtle, the language harder to master when in liquor – though there are those who would argue the opposite – and the closing-hour earlier. And after a concert, there may not be time for both eating and drinking, so individuals must choose their mode of oral consummation.
And so it was that a lively party chose the liquid mode, and disported itself accordingly. The proprietor of the bar-establishment regarded them with no very benignant expression, perhaps on account of the prodigious rearrangement of the furniture which was occasioned, but his junior helpers appeared more obliging. The singers, suitably furnished with libations, struck up a lively banter. Some fell into conversation with an intriguing-looking character in a bow-tie, who transpired to be a journalist from a national publication in Paris, who had attended the concert and needed a stiff drink to recover himself before the journey home.
'Could you see your way clear to writing nice things about our choir in your publication?', inquired Mr Rose hopefully.
'Alas, I am on extended sick-leave, so no', declined the man.
'By any chance did you spy in the audience any local journalists of your acquaintance, who might be about to write nice things about us in the local news-papers, as the word on the street is that we're the best choir ever heard in that cathedral?'
'Alas, no again, because as a national journalist I regard my local colleagues as as dull as two cats, and suffering a deficiency of all mental improvement, therefore they are not known to me', said he.
END OF VOLUME I
The musical matters having been concluded in a most satisfactory manner, it was impossible on serious reflection for the choir members not to devote themselves to some sight-seeing, or whatever diversion took their fancy when let loose in foreign parts. No temptation could be answerable to the folly of not perpetrating peregrinations and consumptions of such a description.
The city of Sens had been named after the tribe of the Senones, prior to which it had wielded considerable influence in the Gallo-Roman era under the name Agedincum. In the 4th century Sens had become a province of the Lyonnaise, but in the Middle Ages it became important owing to its rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The cathedral of St Étienne is the first of the Gothic cathedrals, and although it was damaged during the French Revolution the exterior still possesses an impressive sculptured decor. The interior is notable for the contrast between purity of line and the exuberance of its beautiful furniture. The nearby museum, in the former palaces of the bishops and archbishops, houses one of the richest treasures in France on account of important people what have showered it with favours. The marriage of St Louis was celebrated in the cathedral and St Thomas à Becket lived in Sens for a while.
Sens lies on the right bank of the River Yonne, a tributary of the Seine. A common sight in its market-square is an eccentric-looking person, having the appearance of a mad woman, and sitting on the doorstep of the Institute of Beauty making copious notes in a ring-binder.
'Fie, for do you think she is a loony?', asked the Hon. Miss Morton.
''Tis true, she hath that appearance, being of a certain age, that is to say uncertain but certainly more than one would wish, and clad in a dress of exceeding brevity, and a green star upon her forehead', opined Lord Courtland.
'But if I looked like that, I warrant that making notes at the Institute of Beauty would be a vastly sane act', came the statement from Willoughby.
'I draw the honourable gentleman's attention to the act that she has now turned to, namely tying a cardboard box with twine to yonder small tree', pointed out Harry.
'Perhaps she is an artiste or sculptress, and that is an installation', said Willoughby.
'For shame, I postulate that she objects to the confinement of trees in ornamental tubs in an urban setting, and is making an ironic statement with dead-tree pulp which has been laminated and exploited'.
After this diversion, the party turned back to the serious social business of the day, centred round the procurement of a nuncheon, washed down with Burgundy-wine, Belgium-beer and the like.
'I'll wager Robert Ferrars20 will be married to Miss Steele by the mid-summer, see if he an't, he having a top G to match the best in Old-Marylebone-road, and she being blessed with a C-sharp from a noble lineage'.
But their debate was interrupted by the manifestation at their table of a bearded man, who appeared of limited means both financially and mentally, and who sought to bum a fag21.
'Sorry mate, there's no fags at this table', stated Mr Pratt.
'Êtes-vous sûr?' responded the bearded beggar, dubiously, eyeing the assembled company.
And so it was that he stomped off and set to ripping off22 the installation of cardboard hitherto tied to the tree in the tub.
'Do you think he knows who installed that?'
'La! He's probably her beau, and they've had a row'.
'Perchance they are both loonies, and this is a daily ritual', offered the Hon. Miss Morton.
'She'll be along in a minute to remonstrate with him, no doubt', suggested Charlotte Palmer.
But of the woman with the green star on her forehead there was no sign. Then the centime23 fell.
'I'll wager they're the same person, and he (for this was indeed the more likely of the two gender-scenarios) goes behind the covered-market to change his clothes and false beard'.
'Nay my dear, for thou be a great coxcomb, and no mistake'.
'Well, they both bum fags. And have you ever seen them together?', asked Willoughby rhetorically and argument-winningly.
'He'll be a schizophrenic, this being the cause of the installation and the subsequent de-installation malarky, which is arguably an incisive comment on the dichotomies inherent in society today'.
'Oh, shut up', advised Lord Courtland.
There ensued several hours of general non-sense, including Edward Ferrars appearing to 'sing in the rain' despite there being no actual rain at that time. After which they left the streets to the patrolling Vehicles from the Agency for the Assistance of the Asphyxiated and Wounded24 and returned to White-cross Cottage, there to make more noise by going 'shhh' than the conversation which the shushing sought to suppress or prevent, would have occasioned.
Many times did they then expect a rap foretelling a visitor, but no rap came.
The establishments in the market-square were wont, before the sun had reached that azimuth in the sky which made it acceptable to start on the al-cohol, to serve stimulating beverages of the caffeinaceous variety. It was in that situation that it had become traditional to sit around texting. Last year it was a predominantly female fashion, but this year some males were caught with their fingers on the keys, much to their chagrin when daguerrotypes were made of the activity. Having thus kept contact with absent friends, it was time to sight-see beyond the city boundaries.
Colonel Brandon, Marianne, Elinor and Willoughby had the notion of visiting the Champagne region to the north, where the viewing of some country-side could be combined with a little dégustation and gastronomy, plus even a speleological excursion into some cellars. All in all a most satisfactory package. The main champagne-growing regions are the Vignoble de l'Aisne, Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs, all clustered around the River Marne, but it was the village of Vertus, in the Côte des Blancs, which rendered the most proximate fulfilment of three of the party's four objectives. For the fourth, it was necessary to proceed to Épernay, where a train-tour of the cellars was accompanied by a triple dégustation and an opportunity to handle a Nebuchadnezzar, being a 15-litre bottle of some considerable avoirdupois even when empty. There was also a 1600-hectolitre barrel on display, but this was too large for either Colonel Brandon or Willoughby to pick up.
The vines are grown mainly on hillsides, to profit from the angle of the sun-shine and also the controlled drainage of the chalky soils. Champagne-wine is made from various proportions of only three grape-types: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The ends of the rows of vines are frequently marked by rose-bushes or what appear to be grave-stones. This is not, as may be thought, an indication of the number of people who have died in the fields from excessive dégustation, nor of funereal requests to be buried near such sources of happiness. The stones merely mark the owner of the vines, and the roses fulfil a function similar to that of a canary down a coal-mine – should phylloxéra strike, the rose will exhibit symptoms before the vines, allowing timely deployment of suitable remedies.
Colonel Brandon was called away to Paris, and caught the railway-train thence without delay – speculation was rife that he was off to visit a secret love-child.
'It's the quiet ones you've got to watch', ventured Marianne.
'And those who appear quite a beau, yet if you do meet them of a morning, they are not fit to be seen', added Elinor.
But Willoughby was gazing at the Château de Montmort, which appeared from the north a black silhouette, beset by bats and dark clouds, all thunderbolts and daggers, no doubt harbouring vampires, and deep in harden'd villany, whereas from the west it was bathed in evening sunshine and a pleasant backdrop to afternoon tea on the terrace.
A more spiritual destination for another day was Vézelay, being a medieval hilltop town some distance to the south, dominated by the Basilica of St Madeleine (12th - 13th century) which is universally considered to be a masterpiece of Romanesque art for the beauty of its architecture and the exceptional quality of its sculptured decorations. It is a major pilgrimage site, a special halt on the way to Compostella, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The journey thence was enlivened by views of the Canal du Nivernais – boats and locks and such – , spectacular limestone formations, and troglodyte dwellings.
And this region is also hospitable to the viticultural tendency, the local speciality being Chablis-wine. Its healing powers might be as reasonably tried on a heart vex'd by not being able to buy postage-stamps at the same time and place as post-cards, as on a heart vex'd by any other botheration.
END OF VOLUME II
About the third or fourth morning of their being thus re-settled in Sens, their respective impatiences grew to be gone, though variously anxious for the removal, and conscious of the difficulties of so long a journey. The members of the party began to make their respective ways home, by the various chariots which had been secured for the purpose – or in one case, delayed awhile awaiting a replacement thrust-bearing for the débrayage25 – or by the roads-of-iron26 preferred by the younger members, so that they could continue some insensibility awhile longer.
By some miracle the railway children contrived to congregate in the square on time, thence to make their way to the station and be transported by the train-at-big-speed27 then the Euro-star. It is customary on such occasions merely to begin to make one's way to the meeting-place at the appointed time, but perhaps they are starting to see sense. Would that that sense had been extended to the impromptu performance in the Euro-star carriage of Pastime With Good Company in the style of a crumhorn-and-sackbutt ensemble, which had attracted some opprobrium from fellow passengers. A sensible person in that situation would have boasted of being from a different-named choir. But then a seven-hour lunch would render the most sensible person insensible.
'Jeez, you lot sound like a pack of dingoes with a flock of kookaburras pecking at their dongers!', exclaimed a spokesperson for the other passengers.
History does not record the exact reply, but as Cartwright later said, 'I was not insulting. I was matter-of-fact, but not insulting. A pint of Burgundy with my cheese sandwich around Ashford was enough to over-set me'.
So, between performing and holiday-making, between earnest tourism and dissolute monkey-tricks, there was that constant communication which strong choral affection would naturally dictate; – and among the merits of doing this kind of thing, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that sense and sensibility should continue in uneasy balance.
Then they all lived happily ever after.
(1) Le Chant Des Oiseaux: colloquially known as The Birdie Song (no, not that birdie song).
(2) the average London concert-goer: this is not meant to sound patronising.
(3) Sens: the milieu for this narrative.
(4) John Dashwood: played in the 1995 film by James Fleet.
(5) Willoughby: Greg Wise.
(6) Marianne: Kate Winslet.
(7) Elinor: Emma Thompson.
(8) Sir John Middleton: Robert Hardy.
(9) Thomas: Ian Brimble.
(10) Mrs Dashwood: Gemma Jones.
(11) Edward Ferrars: Hugh Grant.
(12) Colonel Brandon: Alan Rickman.
(13) Mr Harris: Oliver Ford Davies.
(14) Fanny Dashwood: Harriet Walter.
(15) Lucy Steele: Imogen Stubbs.
(16) Mrs Jennings: Elizabeth Spriggs.
(17) Betty: Isabelle Amyes.
(18) Charlotte Palmer: Imelda Staunton.
(19) Thomas Palmer: Hugh Laurie.
(20) Robert Ferrars: Richard Lumsden.
(21) bum a fag: American readers in particular should note that this means to beg for the donation of a cigar-ette, without any pecuniary intercourse accompanying the transaction.
(22) ripping off: not stealing as such, but an archaic form meaning 'tearing away'.
(23) centime: 0.00152449 euro. Like 'penny' in colloquial English expression.
(24) Vehicle from the Agency for the Assistance of the Asphyxiated and Wounded: ambulance.
(25) débrayage: clutch.
(26, 27) road-of-iron, train-at-big-speed: translations of French railway terms.