How quickly things become tradition

Hola a todos. Well, we’re in the midst of the 2019 December holiday season — as of this writing it’s the third of the Twelve Days of Christmas (27 December) although the sheeple probably think that Navidad/Christmas is over — and the Conservatory is closed. The splendid holiday performances from the Conservatory’s Symphony Orchestra and 150-voice Symphony Chorus are over. (They did not perform Messiah; the Conservatory was a Messiah-free zone).

They performed Ralph Vaughan William’s glorious Hodie, along with some of the carols and descants from Sir David Willcocks’s Carols for Choir series.

I had recently graduated from the Conservatory where I trained (man, that was intense training!) and it was my first season as a chorister with Norman Scribner’s superb Choral Arts Society of Washington. I was absolutely thrilled to be given the opportunity to perform regularly in the Kennedy Center right out of the Conservatory. How many people had that opportunity? I was also thrilled to be part of such a wonderful symphonic Chorus — one of the three Orchestra Choruses at that time in the District of Columbia that performed (and still does on occasion) with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and guest (inter)national Orchestras at the Kennedy Center. During that first season for our holiday concerts, Norman chose some of Sir David Willcocks’s arrangements of Anglican carols that had recently been published. (Carols for Choir). They were/are beautiful arrangements, some complete with a glorious descants especially when sung by the superb, flute-like, perfect-intonation soprano section of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. During our rehearsal on stage, a part of me wanted to be in the Chorus — which I was — but another part of me wanted to be out in the Orchestra seating to hear the glorious choral sound coming from the Choral Arts Society. I kept thinking: Can’t we record this somehow? The sound on stage was amazing. The sound of choral excellence at its highest level. Can’t we record our rehearsals with the NSO? No, no recording was allowed which didn’t make any sense to me because up in Boston, WGBH was recording the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory Chorus and then later the newly-formed Tanglewood Festival Chorus which later replaced the NEC Chorus. But we in the Choral Arts Society were probably the first Chorus to perform the Willcocks’s carols — if that matters — in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for our holiday concerts. Norman used a pick-up Orchestra, which consisted of members of the NSO, with Norman conducting, which was about the only time Norman got to conduct his own Chorus since all our other performances with the NSO and guest (inter)national orchestras were conducted by the orchestral conductor.

Well, since then, due to a lack of creativity and imagination from Choirmasters and Chorus Directors, the Willcocks’s descants have become rooted in tradition. The first few years after the debut of the Willcocks’s arrangements, the Carols for Choir scores automatically appeared in Chorus rehearsal rooms in the late Autumn to prepare for the holiday season performances. They had already become The Standard. The thing is: For a talented Choirmaster or Chorus Director who may also be a composer, it doesn’t take anything to write a descant, just a little time. I hear descants in my head to well-known carols and mine have more runs in them than the Willcocks’s descants, but I don’t take the time to write mine down and nobody would buy them anyway because “It has to be the Willcocks’s descants per tradition” is what I would be told. Year after year, choral ensembles perform the same descants over and over. And to me it has become boring and predictable, like most silly traditions. I’ve come to expect the Willcocks’s descants having heard them so many times. It speaks to a lack of imagination and creativity frankly. The same old, the same old. Can’t they ever do anything differently? No they can’t. It’s tradition. Write your own descants, people. Get out of your conservative, conformist traditional rut. Or is it also a matter of laziness?

If I were still Organist-Choirmaster in an Anglican parish or Cathedral Church and assuming I had a soprano or treble section capable to performing descants superbly, I’d write my own descants for them to sing. Probably a different one each year. I think it’s the carol Hark, the Herald that Sir Philip Ledger wrote a beautiful and interesting descant for, but unfortunately I rarely hear that sung because, “It’s got to be the Willcocks’s descant.” Why? Tradition. We humans certainly do get stuck in so many ruts because of silly tradition.

Who would have thought that a new series of carols/descants published in the late 1970s would become The StandardTM so quickly and for decades?

And in the Anglican Church, there’s this unspoken rule for descants — regardless of the season of the Liturgical Year — that a descant can only be sung once during the carol or hymn, and usually on the last verse and not until then. That’s ridiculous. What nut came up with that tradition? Some Choirmasters find the courage to rebel against that and have the boys sing the descant in the middle verse of the hymn as well as on the last verse so you do get to hear the descant twice. But that’s a rare occurrence. When the descant is only sung on the final verse, this causes some in the congregation to stop singing — if they were singing to begin with — to listen to the descant because you only get one chance at it.

Whereas at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris — before the fire — their excellent Children’s Choir sang descants on every verse of a hymn or carol (where a descant had been written for it of course), or at the appropriate place in the carol or hymn where the descant began. I liked that. The point being that they sang the descant more than once per the carol or hymn which I think is a better way of doing.

Some parishes in the non-United States won’t have their trebles/choirboys sing a descant at all on occasion because they don’t want to become predictable. So someone like myself who is a “descant person” in the resident congregation will know that there’s a descant for a certain hymn and I’m wondering whether the boys will sing it. Sometimes the trebles won’t sing it because they were expected to sing it, per tradition, but they don’t want to become predictable by always singing the descant. Unfortunately, this approach gives one a rather boring last verse. It leaves me saying to myself: So they’re not doing the descant this time. Well hell. How boring. Personally, I’d rather hear an over-familiar descant sung well than to hear another boring drab verse of a hymn played unimaginably in some cases by the organist. I’m thinking about a certain parish which shall remain nameless: I thought you were High Church? You certainly don’t sound like it that much as of lately by the “by the book” style of organ playing I’ve heard for hymns when I’ve tuned in to listen to your Liturgies on occasion. And you have that new large pipe organ that took years to install and that’s all you’re doing with it? It almost reminds one of “Mabel at the Mighty Hammond.” They might as well have a Hammond since that’s all they’re doing with their pipe organ for hymn playing and improvisations. I won’t name names.

And during the Twelve Days of Christmas (25 December – 5 January), these carols are sung a few times depending upon the parish or Cathedral Church and their musical skill level, if they have a choral ensemble capable of singing descants.

Note to Choirmasters: If your sopranos can’t sing a descant with perfect intonation, don’t even have them attempt it. It will sound awful. Unless you like awful — some people do, apparently — or you don’t care (which is the impression I get with a certain Choirmaster at a well-known Cathedral Church of the Anglican Communion in the US). Or, you have lowered your standards of choral excellence to an even lower level than before.

For example, I recently heard the soprano section of the Cathedral Singers at Washington National Cathedral (WNC). They have always been “hit and miss” when it comes to choral excellence. They can sound exquisite in their Introit sung in the back of the Nave at WNC. But elsewhere in the Liturgy, you would swear you’re listening to a different choral ensemble than which sang the Introit. The point being: They’re not consistent. When I see them (Cathedral Singers) listed on the service leaflet my usual response is a groan followed by, “Oh, them.” The Choirmaster seems to let them sing any old way they want. So for example, I heard their soprano section sing a descant for a hymn during Pentecost and their descant ruined the hymn. It was awful. What has happened to the level of choral excellence at WNC? It’s not consistent. I heard them singing in the Sanctuary area where they sit for some odd reason — rather than in the Choir stalls where they should be and where any other Cathedral Choir in the Anglican Communion sits — and they were not singing with perfect intonation. Were they trying to emulate an Opera Chorus where perfect intonation is forbidden? There’s nothing worse than hearing fluttering, quivering sopranos wobbling their way through a descant. I thought this was basic knowledge: Descants are in the same category as Renaissance Music: To be sung with a straight-tone. No noticeable vibrato. What has happened to choral excellence in the non-United States? It seems to be like everything else. A nation in decline. A nation collapsing.

But back to the descants by David Willcocks: I want to be clear in what I’m saying here for the thick and dense people (no shortage of them by all indications) who may show up here: I’m not putting the Willcocks’s descants down. I’m in no way disparaging them. My point is that they are overdone due to a lack of musical creativity from Chorus Directors and Choirmasters who have become too comfortable, too cushy in their (well-salaried?) positions. With few exceptions, Choirmasters keep doing the same old repertoire year after year with little change to it. To the same Choirmasters: When will you learn most or all of the Howells’s canticle settings rather than doing The Big Three (Collegium Regale Service, St Paul’s and Gloucester Services) year after year? When will you learn his beautiful anthem that’s rarely performed, “I Love All Beauteous Things?” I can hear their response: We prefer to do the same thing all the time. Year after year. That’s what our congregation expects. They don’t really go for anything new. Less work involved. No scores to order. It’s cheaper. No new repertoire to learn especially for boys. Easy. The Men of the Choir are on-call and come in and sight-read it. Then why have a Choir School? Just to say you have one? Aren’t boys there to learn new repertoire in a Choir School? That would seem to be part of the goal of a Choir School to me, no?

But I’m a realist: I’m sure the Willcocks’s descants, in particular, will remain The StandardTM for years to come. That’s the way traditions work. Chau.—el barrio rosa