I don’t mean to be a Scrooge, but it’s December 23 in NYC.
Christmastime in Manhattan is always a bit of a scene, but the combination of yuletide consumerism and an absurdly bourgeois friend group can raise the experience of gift shopping from the intolerable to the downright ridiculous. I suppose I only have myself to blame – I willingly met up with three opera singers in SoHo to accompany them as they shopped.
11.30 AM – First stop made at the magnificent Crate and Barrel, on the corner of Houston and Broadway. Baritone and organist take to sitting on couch while soprano waits twenty minutes for an artisanal bar spoon cum muddler. No, this could not be purchased at William Sonoma or any of the other fantastic culinary dens of tchotchke iniquity in the soprano’s native Brooklyn.
12.15PM – Lunch! But where? Everything in SoHo is infuriatingly chic. Tenor and Soprano break down and agree to eating lunch at a mac’n’cheese bar (…yup…) off Lafayette (called, very originally, Mac). Soprano gets hers with mushrooms – The tenor, with fontina cheese. Organist, true to form, orders one with ground beef and sriracha – essentially a glorified hipster Hamburger Helper. Accompanied, of course, by an organic ginger beer. $17 please.
1PM – It apparently takes 20 minutes to make mac’n’cheese at an all-mac’n’cheese gourmet fast food restaurant. Lacking access to nicotine, caffeine is the next best bet for recovery. Coffee is obtained at La Colombe, another disgustingly small SoHo establishment, being made even smaller by the abundance of shopping bags from Hollister (ew), Armani and Louis Vuitton, as well as a pair of dilated pupils belonging to a barista who seems to be having a very merry Christmas indeed. (Likewise, this takes 20 minutes.)
3PM – Brooklyn (thankfully?). Musical quartet and soprano’s brother (hereafter known as Bro), wander down Smith Street in Boerum Hill to a cheese shop called Stinky. Living up to its name, the shop smells of alcohol, liver and ammonium lactate (yum). Yet the cheese shop sells a number of items, which to the untrained eye or palate could be mistaken for items sold at your local spa. The most conspicuous culprit is a box of crackers made from charcoal (huh?) with a mistranslated label on the back in German which read “Arsche Cracker” (ass crackers) instead of “Asche Cracker” (“Ash” or charcoal crackers).
Truffle Salt – Stinkify your mashed potatoes and braised kale, sure. But why stop there? Use leftovers to gently exfoliate, leaving your skin smelling fungal fresh.
Duck fat with Orange, Rosemary and Lavender – Tired of all those ethical products made from palm trees and coconuts? Tired of smelling like your yoga instructor or last night’s pina colada? Try the sensual smoothness of herb-spiced duck fat, sure to make you popular with cats, dogs and that finance jock-brah in the cheese shop wearing running tights under his 4th of July Chubbies. (No, I couldn’t find him on Tinder.)
Aromatic bitters – Allow the natural powers of chicory, allspice, espresso and apple cider vinegar not only to enhance your cocktail, but everything in your life, from your colon to your countertop. Impress your friends, your family and even your proctologist at your holiday parties as you show off your squeaky clean existence.
Fine English Charcoal Squares – while excellent with your D’Affinois or Humboldt Fog, Fine English Charcoal Squares use the power of pure charcoal to ignite a unique blandness and passive-
aggression, capable of pumicing the thick skin off even the most self-loathing middle-class WASP. Save yourself a trip to the local Korean spa and indulge in the latest breakthrough in home foot
care. Travelling abroad? Look for our items in Germany and Northern Europe! Just ask your local cheese den for a box of Fine English Arsche Crackers (Ass Crackers? ). “Fine English Goods – Somebody needs a cracker…”
3.30PM – Soprano, Bro, Tenor and Organist wander around Boerum Hill while lactose-intolerant Baritone has a lie down after sampling cheese at stinky not long after the 2016 Manhattan Mac’n’Cheese Massacre. Next stop is made at a shop called Elements, a spa selling massages, aromatherapy and reiki. Bro buys massage gift certificate for mom. Soprano and Tenor begin discussing opera coaches (or maybe Dante’s Purgatorio? Hard to tell the difference…) Organist gets back on Tinder.
4PM – A stop at Sahadi’s grocery, waiting in line for… 20 minutes to pick up containers of their world famous spicy hummus.
It was not long after this that I said by goodbyes, as we proceeded to search in several liquor stores for Chimay Grand Reserve Trappist ale. I admit, I was having fun, but the choir library beckoned, as did other preparations necessary for the coming Christmas Eve services. Returning to the city, I was internally going over the music in my head for the coming weekend. Harold Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter, Once in Royal David’s City, Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down – some of the great chestnuts of the English Carol repertoire, made famous by the BBC’s worldwide broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.
Christmas Eve on 69th street is thankfully more understated and less stressful than those I spent in Cambridge a few years ago. It’s still a great service, though. The world famous Paul Jacobs, our Artist-in-Residence, takes over the organ keys for the evening as I stand in front of the choir and sit behind a harp. Following our initial procession singing Once in Royal, the evening’s service begins with a performance Britten’s Ceremony of Carols for voices and harp, setting the tone for the rest of the service. It’s really a meditation/prelude which takes the traditional Lessons and Carols format and tips it upside down.
That morning, we organists and church nerds of the United States tune in and listen to the first lesson about the fall of Adam and original sin, preceding one more settings of Adam lay ibowndyn – a medieval Carol which retells the story in vernacular middle English.
Adam lay ibowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long
And al was for an appill,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.
Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
Britten does something really different with this carol though – he doesn’t stick it at the beginning of row of carols as usual, but sticks it at the end. It’s also not a solemn setting by any means – it’s punchy, rhythmic, and totally ecstatic by the end: the harpist goes ape, playing glissandos at will (equivalent to a pianist banging on all the white keys as fast as they can) while the choir sits on an A major triad.
It’s quite a statement to make, as the whole series of carols meditating on Mary’s relationship with her son, the frailty of children poverty, of death and implications – the big elements we all know when we envision the crèche – ends up saying that there’s no celebration without a prior travesty. In short, the human condition is not to be bewailed, but beheld or even embraced.
There are so many threads like this all throughout the Ceremony – for instance there are carols carol carols, but no lessons to accompany them. Each movement bears a direct tonal relationship with both the movements before and after. The Nativity becomes less of a linear story, and more of a prism through which view how human characters interact at the manger. A major to F major to D-flat major to F-sharp minor to D sharp major and E-flat minor – musicians will recognize what are called the “tertiary relationships” between the movements, whereby the key centers bear common tonal traits with one other but are yet distinct. Composers such as Schumann and Schubert used the same trick in their own song cycles to give an intangible sense of relationship between songs without having to rely on narrative. For Britten, it’s as the nativity – the birth, the “event,” our reflection – is a single psychological event, a retrospective on the beauty of the imperfections in one of humanity’s classic tales of humility.
In revisiting the score again for the eleventh Christmas in a row, the notes fall under my fingers and yet there is meaning anew. As with last year and the year before, pacing is up for grabs, as it’s sometimes not clear how to link movements together with no clear narrative. Which movements tie into one another? Which ones stand alone? Which strings need to keep vibrating? Do others need muffling or need to die away? What did I do last time? What should I do this time? Like Christmas itself, the Britten becomes one more of those elusive “life events” that we humans assign meaning to each time they come round. It’s never exactly the same, as familiarity it sufficient. We change our Christmas traditions slightly, our feelings differ year to year; we shop for new clothes, familiar foods with an updated taste, gifts for family to get them back to where they were a Christmas prior.
The Dickesnsian trope of time and its expenditure in A Christmas Carol is no accident – it’s perhaps just a more glaring reminder that Christmas concentrates our preoccupations with time, whether we like it or not. For instance, the perceived permanence of the gifts we give and receive is important but changeable every year – the millennial needs a KitchenAid (duh), something solid and forward-looking, but the parent needs a massage, a dessert, a bottle of something strong, or any other ephemeral goods which might challenge longevity’s recourse. In this sense, it really is a season to buy ridiculous gifts and to grant someone the same joy one gets in believing that all experiences are still fresh.
Yet despite the fun of the wild shopping goose chase today, I’m reminded that music’s tenuous ground between the permanent and the temporary offers something that gift-giving and receiving just doesn’t. Musicians are lucky enough to reside in that fun little space of temporal and emotional mutability, taking the same barebones again and again, but making them at once new and while also nodding towards the past. For me the Britten is no different than most people’s favorite songs, hymns or Christmas carols. We remember them and time itself renders not just new meaning, but an accumulation of meanings. The title of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is also no accident – music constantly deals with the strangeness of time.
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
It’s ironic for me in a way, because while the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge is an important part of my morning every year (for more reasons than one) my memories with Britten stretch back further. From an old 8-track tape in the car to the CD recordings, from the performances my professional harpist mother gave, to my own performances for the last eleven years: the act of sitting at the harp, working with the score, putting my fingers to the strings – it’s still the absolute epitome of Christmas for me. Since I was born, be it from listening to watching, to singing, to playing etc. I’ve done something different and changed how I feel, but in relation to a single piece of music. Like Christmas it’s an event, but more stable and meaningful perhaps because I am after all a musician. Sitting on a piano stool at 69th street on Christmas Eve, I’m at once in my parent’s old Volvo, on stage at Blair School of Music, in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, the chapel at King’s, at my home church in Nashville, Tennessee – just as Scrooge found out, Christmas is all Christmases at once and none, stable in the knowledge that it will come next year, when you are once again, miraculously the same person with a new heart.