What did you do with your weekend? I learned and performed some Old English and Anglo-Norman carols as part of Waes Hael, a day of exploring the development of the carol from dance and folklore to its part in Christmas. As I was jotting down some inital thoughts before bed that night, one of the tunes was on a constant loop – the two-line easy-to-remember one, obviously. It’s called Nay Ivy Nay and the lines in question were the chorus, which came between the verses which were being sung by the four professional singers who were doing most of the evening concert, as opposed to us bunch of enthusiastic amateurs who were there to have a fun day trying something new. Apparently, back in the day, men and women would have sing offs, the men’s songs telling how they were the best and the women’s how they were. Naturally, since the vast majority of history has been passed on by men, most of the songs which have survived belong to them. Nay Ivy Nay was a men’s song, describing how the holly (representing men) was better than ivy (women). But we all sang it good-naturedly anyway! Being the easiest, that was the one we learned first, to get us in the mood.
Then came the drinking song – A Saxon Wassail – which was to open the show. This was more of a challenge, not least because we’d sometimes adopt one of the other parts instead of our own after listening to their turn at learning a bit. This may in part be down to the fact that we were learning by listening, rather than by reading a score. Whenever I’ve been in a choir I’ve had the music in front of me, so this way took a bit of getting used to. But why would it make that much difference, given that I pick up songs from the radio or a CD? I suppose for a start I never did very well in the aural tests of my music exams (e.g. clapping back a rhythm) – my memory just doesn’t work that efficiently. But also a score shows you the direction you need to go in – it reminds you that while the altos are about to go for a lower note, you (the soprano) need to go up. It also tells you how many notes you’re going to sing on each syllable, which having just the words doesn’t.
But I digress – back to the drinking song. It was basically a bit of Anglo-Norman propaganda. A few decades after the Norman Conquest, Wace (c.1110-1174) was recounting a song which the Anglo-Saxons allegedly sang on the eve of the Battle of Hastings. He was saying that while the Normans were decent, pious chaps, the locals were a raucous, undisciplined lot who needed to be conquered and shown the error of their ways. I’ll leave you to decide for yourself who you’d sympathise with. Interestingly for the linguists, although the words were Old English he used Anglo-Norman spellings of them, which I suppose is logical enough if you don’t know the language. I’m not one to be put off by unfamiliar words and pronunciations though. Over the years I’ve done pieces in, for example Latin, German, Russian and Hebrew, and usually didn’t have much clue at all about what I was saying. The pleasure after all is getting together with a like-minded group and creating beautiful music. The third song was a 15th century lullaby. It was shorter than the drinking song but I found it harder to pick up – back to my problem with remembering rhythms. But once we cracked it, a very beautiful song.
After Christmas Dinner at the pub over the road was the concert. And oh dear – the tunes were not as firmly in some of our heads as we hoped (especially me!). But nevertheless I think there was some excellent improvisation, it still sounded great and it’s not as if the audience knew what it should have sounded like anyway. And I think we did a pretty good job considering we’d only done them for a bit more than an hour each. The ‘proper’ singers showed us what other songs they’d unearthed, including the 9th century Carol of the Star, the 13th century Wynter Wakeneth poem with Latin plainchant and the 16th century Boar’s Head Carol. There was also the most effective ending of an interval I think I’ve seen. Without warning, they started an extract from The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors (in early modern English), which sounded like some hooligan had come in causing trouble, with two of them imploring everyone to sit down to escape his wrath. Very clever! And it wasn’t quite over for the choir either. There was a tune which was later used for Ding Dong Merrily on High, and volunteers were invited to learn a simple dance – naturally us in the choir gave it go, and yes it was very straightforward. It was a shame we didn’t do it for a bit longer actually. We also had a rendition of Here We Come A-Wassailing with audience participation. So really we learnt four songs rather than three.
In keeping with the learning about the history of the songs, this all took place in the medieval church of All Saints, Childwell, Liverpool and we started the day with a talk from one of the church wardens about its history. There has been a church on the site since before the Domesday survey, but most of what is there is from the 14th century or later. A few of the interesting features were:
Some Saxon stones reused in the porch (they were possibly part of a preaching cross for intinerant priests).
A squint window through which the excommunicated or ill could watch the service from outside the church.
The medieval piscina (used by the priest to wash the communion vessels), which is now at floor level but would have been at waist level. The church was originally built to take advantage of the downward slope in order to further obstruct the view between the congregation and the priest performing the mass (since it was a secretive process the laity shouldn’t see). The floor at that end was raised in the 19th century by about 3 1/2 feet, but even now you can still feel a slight slope as you walk the length of the church.
By the time I was leaving after the concert, humming the tune about the holly (which incidentally I woke up humming too), I was absolutely buzzing after my fun and interesting day in its beautiful setting.