Monday, December 15, 2008

Douce nuit

I sing in an English choir--English language, and, pour la plupart, English passports. I've sung in choirs off and on for years, in college and graduate school, and then an interval of working and child rearing, and now again. It's something that I often can muster no more than ambivalent feelings about, and yet I keep showing up at rehearsals. I think it's the distraction--when you are singing in harmony, you can't make grocery lists or worry about Detroit's Big 3--and the people--second sopranos tend, in my experience, to be solid, dependable, generous sorts--and then the moments when all the parts come in at the right time and in the right key and you are for a moment inside the music, inside the sound.

The Christmas concerts were this weekend. The Christmas carols that the choir sang this year were English (Here We Come A-Wassailing) and more English (Past Three O'Clock), with a couple of French (Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agréable, which means just what it sounds like it might) thrown in to show that geographical respect. The concerts were in the local village church, built in the early 1200s: plain, unadorned stone, a few windows high up in the walls, almost Shaker in its simplicity. The combination of stone and ridiculously high ceilings would make any music sound full and soaring.

Saturday night C and the girls came to the concert. We all know the more obscure English carols, down to the third or fourth verses, because of a Christmas party we've gone to in my hometown for all of the girls' lives and more than half of mine. At that party everyone brings food--and in our memory, it's the same food every year, brought by the same people: fudge from the University chaplain, pound cake from the retired superintendent of schools, ham from the political science professor. After drinking--spiced cider and wine---and eating, it's time to sing carols. Not just the standard American ones, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Come All Ye Faithful, but ones you don't hear constantly, Good King Wenceslas and Of the Father's Love Begotten. The hosts are teachers, and so everything proceeds according to lesson plan. The carols have been photocopied, collated, numbered and stapled. The guest who is a piano teacher takes her place and numbers are called out. The same carols, every year. The same jokes, the same silliness, the same people who take the harmony at the same measure.

Our plane won't land in time for that party this year, and so this Christmas concert was our chance to sing all those carols. Silent Night was on the list, sung in French and in English. I've never liked Silent Night. The melody isn't interesting, and the words make me think of the third-rate art on grocery store Christmas cards. As the congregation stood and the opening bars reminded them of the tune, I looked down the aisle of the church and saw a little girl slip out of a pew towards the back and stand, shifting from foot to foot, watching the choir and the congregation. Her mother had careful hold of the strap of the little girl's pinafore dress. The child--four or five years old--had blond curls to her shoulders, pinned up and away from her forehead in a sparkly barrette. She danced a little unevenly to the music as everyone began to sing.

My girls were up front, where I'd saved them seats. When they were that child's age, I had, more than once, set them out into the aisle so that they could see the choir, buying a little more time that way, keeping them entertained a little longer. Now they stood seriously by their father, reading the words as they sang.

Douce nuit, sainte nuit.
Dans les cieux l'astre luit.

Le mystère annoncé s'accomplit.

Cet enfant sur la paille endormit,

C'est l'amour infini,

C'est l'amour infini !

For a moment all the Christmases were present at once, when I was my girls' age and singing this carol, when they were babies and little girls in the aisle, all the years of pound cake and spiced cider and our friend Jonathan singing Good King Wenceslas in his exaggerated bass voice, and this very Christmas, in the old church in the old country, all of us and all of those Christmases together. T. S. Eliot calls it "the accumulated memories of annual emotion." The melody built, and I took a breath to finish out the chorus and swallowed my cough drop whole. Tears leaked out of my eyes and ran down my cheeks: tears that come from a lot of eucalyptus flavoring stuck in your throat all at once, but also of all those accumulated memories.

The carol ended and everyone sat down. C found my eyes and asked if I were okay. Yes, I gave a small nod. Yes.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry you are going to miss the party! You are all such a part of it. We'll hope to see you soon.
    I love your stories of France.