Betsy Cook Weber
The Final 2021 Choircrawl — London Blitz Part 5 — Westminster Abbey "Ceremony of Carols"
Rick Weber, my husband, my boon companion, my itinerary-creator and updater, my enthusiastic supporter, and the love of my life, had only one musical request on this long choircrawl. He asked to hear the boy choristers of Westminster Abbey perform Britten's Ceremony of Carols on the final night of our trip. This was easy. I wanted to hear them, too.
We tubed and walked our way to the Abbey, arriving early, of course, for the 6:00 performance. (Early is on time.) At 5:15 the gates were opened, our bags were checked, and we were allowed to stand closer to the entrance — still outside, but closer. It was dark, misty and cold, and I thought about one of the movements of Ceremony, "In Freezing Winter Night." And I thought about the little match girl passion (David Lang), and homeless people everywhere, and I realized what a spoiled wimp I am. I wore a warm coat and gloves, and I was miserable.
Westminster Abbey on a dark, cold misty night
At 5:30, the doors opened, and ushers in morning coats led us up the aisle. I tried unsuccessfully to avoid stepping on the markers of famous musicians, including Britten, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Stanford. The seating plan was carefully distanced, and I noticed that the very front rows were reserved — for patrons, I assumed, but they were actually set aside for the proud families of the boys who were about to perform.
A few beautiful words of welcome were spoken, followed by a Bach organ prelude, "In dulci Jubilo," and then, very, very faintly, we heard the opening of the "Processional." Long before we could see the boys, we could "see" the sound moving forward up the aisle to us. Finally, the boys appeared, clad in bright red cassocks with white ruffled collars. There were only thirteen of them, and they looked incredibly young because, of course, they are incredibly young. I suspected that they usually have more than 13 boy choristers at the Abbey and I hoped that, if boys were missing, it was because they were at dinner with their 90-year-old grandmother, not because they were ill.
Nothing about the performance was perfect, and everything about the performance was wonderful. Some of the boys were confident on their parts — others less so. This is music education on a big stage. Next year, the tentative singers will be confident leaders. Individual boy choristers sang the solos, and they were spot on. Their chorus master, James O'Donnell, led the choir with gentle authority. There are some tricky spots for conductors in this work, and Mr. O'Donnell had clearly mastered all of them long ago. The harpist, Sally Pryce, was the best I have ever heard on this piece. I had never before noticed that the harp solo contains a Dies Irae-like motive, and I was struck by the ominous fore-shadowing it provided.
I sat, watched, listened, and thought about how very courageous it is for 13 children to stand and sing such difficult music to a large audience from the steps of an enormous space like the Abbey. As the choir recessed to the same beautiful music with which Britten opens this marvelous work, I imagined myself saying to each boy, “I have been loving, teaching, and conducting this music since long before you were born. I am so grateful to you for your wonderful, courageous singing. Bravo to you!”
But I knew that that kind of effusiveness would be met with alarm, if not horror, so I put on my warm coat and silently followed Rick outside into the misty, cold dark of a “freezing winter night.”