I happily wish “Merry Christmas” to everyone I know who celebrates it, and “Season’s Greetings” to those who may not, or who celebrate more than one of the season’s holidays, of which there are quite a few. The common denominators for most of them are light and rebirth, which is what the Winter Solstice — grandma of all the season’s holidays — is about in the Northern Hemisphere.
Oh yeah, and music. I love the music. When I still lived in D.C., I was lying in bed early one morning when Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” came on Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning Pro Musica show on public radio. Sung (of course) by John Langstaff (1920–2005), this was my introduction to the Christmas Revels, which I’ve been able to attend live a couple of times and several of whose albums are in my collection, some in vinyl, some on tape, and some in MP3. In the late 1980s I also got to sing in a local version, directed by Mary Payne (1932–1996).
If you don’t know the song, or need to hear it again, here’s classic Langstaff with a lovely collage video of dancers around the world:
By the time I heard “Lord of the Dance” that morning on the radio, I already knew about the pagan roots of Christianity, but knowing plenty about the doings of Christianity in its post- and anti-pagan phases, I wasn’t all that favorably disposed to it. But the song melded the two together forever in my mind and let me glimpse a Christianity that wasn’t all about kings and wars, the enslavement and/or forced conversion of colored peoples and the oppression of women. A Christianity that had borrowed liberally from older traditions.
In the year or so before I left D.C., I’d started singing regularly, in the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and the Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (which was brand-new at the time and increased greatly in size after I left town; not sure if it still exists). I wanted to keep singing after I landed on Martha’s Vineyard, but the options for a strictly amateur adult singer were pretty much limited to church choirs. The singing part was fine, but I couldn’t see myself sitting through a church service every Sunday. Instead I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse, which meant hanging out with musicians, and poets, writers, and other performers too.
Then I learned about the pickup group of island singers that performed the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah every holiday season. Around 1988 I worked up the nerve to attend a rehearsal, in the parish hall of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. The place was packed, the conductor was a forbidding old fellow, and everyone seemed to know the music by heart. I didn’t, and though I could read music, I couldn’t sing from a score I’d never seen before. I was intimidated. I didn’t go back.
A year or two later, though, I tried again. The old fellow had retired, and his successor was someone I knew somewhat from theater. Whatever the reason, I was less intimidated and more confident in my ability to learn the alto part, with the help of my little keyboard and my three-record set of Messiah conducted by Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966.
Come to think of it, that recording is probably why I was so determined to sing Messiah in the first place. I’d had it for years, it’s glorious, and — though it’s been many years since I had the equipment to play LPs — it’s now available on YouTube:
I’m not sure what my first year was, but I do know for sure that I sang in 1990 because I still have the program and my name is listed among the altos.
What do I remember from those early years? The chorus was huge. (The 1990 program lists 17 sopranos, 32 [!!] altos, 10 tenors, and 14 basses.) Cramming us all into the front of the sanctuary at the stone church (Christ United Methodist in Vineyard Haven) was a challenge every year. Tenors and basses were in the back, which was accessed by a short but narrow staircase. One year one of the guys fainted, probably from a combination of excitement and overcrowding. From where I stood in the first or second row, the audience looked like winter picnickers, bundled in warm clothes, with some winter coats and jackets spread out on the pews and often a baby or very small child nestled among them, sleeping. It might have been my first glimpse of what my whole community looked like, not just the newspaper people, the theater people, and the Wintertide people that I hung out with regularly.
We sang all of Part 1, the Christmas portion, plus the Hallelujah and the Amen. Of course the entire congregation stood up for the Hallelujah. This drove some of the singers crazy then and it drives some of them crazy now, but that’s not going to stop anyone from doing it. I suspect it’s the music that does it, and if the chorus weren’t already on our feet, we’d be doing it too.
I love the Amen. It was three years before I could not only sing it all the way through but find my place again if I got lost. Even after I could follow the score and the conductor at the same time, I’d sometimes trance out with the glory of it all and lose my place.
In 1994, the performances were on December 19 and 20. On December 17 I’d seen the litter born that included the future Rhodry Malamutt. My imagery for “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” that year was all about puppies, and I still can’t sing that chorus without thinking of Rhodry.
1994 was also the first year that Peter Boak directed. An experienced choral conductor who’d recently become a year-round resident, Peter was naturally interested in directing more than Messiah, and year-round instead of just at Christmastime; in the years following, the Messiah singers became the original core of what has flourished as the Island Community Chorus. The 1997 program is the first to identify the Messiah ensemble as the Island Community Chorus, and subsequent programs do likewise.
My program collection comes to an abrupt end with 2001. Peter understandably wanted to conduct other works from the Christmas repertoire. We went out with a bang, performing the whole Messiah, parts 1, 2, and 3, on April 7 and 8 of that year. That December (I’m pretty sure it was that December, but if there was a program, I don’t have it) a sing-along Christmas portion of Messiah was held, with soloists, at St. Augustine’s. As I recall, it was well attended but it didn’t happen again. That was it for Messiah on Martha’s Vineyard.
I continued to sing in the Island Community Chorus until 2006, by which time it had grown too big and too elaborate (e.g., instrumentalists imported from off-island) for my taste. Peter is a great teacher-conductor, and I learned a lot singing with him, but I still can’t quite forgive him for killing off an important holiday tradition.
However . . .
In the fall of 2015, a friend at Grace church (the longtime sponsor of Messiah on the Vineyard, from which I many years ago bought my copy of the score) confided that the chorus “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” was going to be sung at the Christmas Eve service and singers were sought to augment the church’s own choir. Of course I jumped, I rehearsed, I sang.
One thing led to another, and — wonder of wonders — the next December the whole Christmas portion of Messiah was performed again on the Vineyard, this time at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. The Grace church group, with ringleaders Jim Norton and indispensable conductor Wes Nagy, brought it back. “An Island Family Tradition Returns” said the poster and the program.
Of course I was there, along with an ensemble more manageable than the giant choruses of the 1990s: 10 sopranos, 8 altos, 12 tenors, and 7 basses, along with 8 instrumentalists and the awesome pianist Griffin McMahon. We did it again in 2017 and, last Saturday, in 2018. For good measure a smaller group sang the Easter section (part three) at Eastertide in 2017.
No, it’s not the same. The Whaling Church is less cozy than the stone church, and the front row of the chorus is no longer face-to-face with the front row of the audience. We finish with a rousing “Hallelujah” and don’t sing the “Amen.” I see fewer young children out there: our audience, like the Vineyard in general, is aging. So, of course, is the chorus. Some of us sang regularly in the 1990s, but quite a few of the 1990s singers have died or left the island. Time moves on, but not all is lost, and some of what was lost comes back.
Which is what “Lord of the Dance,” Messiah, and celebrations of the winter solstice are all about, isn’t it? The country has been passing through a dark and turbulent time, but signs of awakening life are everywhere. Hallelujah!