So there we were after choir rehearsal, more than 20 of us gathered for what’s called a pub sing.
It’s commonplace in England and Ireland, I suppose, but a rarity in the States.
In fact, this was my first encounter. One of our members had reserved a room at a tavern down the street.
Our Boston Revels organization hosts public versions of these during the year, but this was more impromptu. Yes, we had a stack of the organization’s songbooks, just in case. As our motto states, “Where tradition comes to life.”
Two of those present had birthdays, so we belted out in the traditional Happy Birthday song, in glorious four-part harmony – maybe more.
And then one basso voice continued in a dark melody with lyrics like “long ago your hair turned gray, now it’s falling out, they say,” or “it’s your birthday, never fear, you’ll be dead this time next year.” He was quickly joined by a soprano across the table in what became a competition to see who could remember lines the other didn’t know.
For those with a mordant sense of humor, it’s (UHH!) great fun. You can even Google it under the “Happy Birthday Dirge.” For the record, we sang it much better than any of the versions you’ll hear there.
Fortunately, my birthday had slipped past unnoticed just a few weeks earlier.
My wife came across an article that noted the primary cultural focus in 21st century America is fine food and wine. It’s what intelligent people discuss, even argue about, in casual conversation. And just look at all the writing focused on it today.
A related factor the article raised was that in modern history, in each century one nation has dominated in one art form rather than many. That’s had me thinking, even though I think America led on two fronts in the 2oth century.
Here are ten examples that spring to my mind.
Painting and sculpture. 16th century Italian masters.
Theater. 16th century England. Shakespeare is unrivaled.
Painting. 17th century Dutch masters.
Painting. 19th century France culminating in Impressionism.
The symphony. 19th century Germany towering in Beethoven and Brahms. Do we think of Vienna as essentially German?
The novel. 19th century England and America. Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn may be flawed but they remain original masterworks.
Opera. 19th century Italy. Verdi and Puccini remain the core of the repertoire.
Ballet. 19th century Russia. Its great symphonists excelled here. And look where the great dancers and teachers still come from.
Movies. 20th century America. (Shall we consider Hollywood as a nation unto itself?)
Popular music. 20th century America as jazz and then rock evolve. (Note that this happens more in the eastern half of the country – New Orleans, Kansas City, Memphis, Cleveland, Nashville, but especially New York.)
I’ll leave it to others to look for the food trends over time.
Boston Revels is an organization – maybe I should say institution – devoted to keeping community tradition alive through music, storytelling, dance, and the like. It has affiliates in nine other cities.
Here are 10 examples of its activity:
The annual Christmas production. Revels packs Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre for 17 performances of its holiday show. Each year, there’s a new theme – Renaissance Italy, Wales, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Victorian England, Canada’s Acadians combined with Louisiana’s Cajuns, for instance – along with some crowd pleasers that can never, ever, be omitted. It’s a great way to introduce children to theater and live music and dance, but adults are all enthralled by the action. These shows sell out quickly. And one thing I value especially, there’s no mention of Santa Claus.
The CDs. Revels recordings become quite a library of world music.
George Emlen. The now retired music director of 34 years seemed to know all of his musicians by name – and something about their families, too. He was a wonderful, caring conductor, composer, pianist, organist, and arranger building on a unique sound for the company and helping shape the annual productions. Working in his chorus was a lot of fun. I remember hearing him converse in Mandarin with one of our altos after one rehearsal. And to think, he’d once earned his living as a blacksmith!
George founded the Revels Singers, a community chorus that includes a lot of people who’ve performed in the Christmas productions. (That part’s by highly competitive auditions – thank goodness we’re open to all.) We sing quite a range, from the earliest written harmony in its Eastern European roots to South African and American shape-note and Shaker to, well, recently we were immersed in Gospel music. Our repertoire spans nearly 30 languages, and we sound incredible.
Megan Henderson. Amazingly, we found a new music director who could be a reincarnation of George. As she says, We all love George.
The friendships that emerge. It’s an incredible group. Sometime I might even tell you about Mike, whom I join for half of my weekly commute. He drives the Boston traffic part.
Our gigs. Among Revels other events throughout the year are some for our chorus. Performances are always a revelation for me, music-making quite different from rehearsals. Each one has been memorable.
Our rehearsal space. We meet in the social hall of an 1895 church in Watertown, a room with bright acoustics. The adjacent sanctuary has marvelous stained glass, including five windows by the Louis Tiffany studio, and a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ that was left untouched in the ’60s and ’70s, when many others were reworked to match a change in tonal tastes. This one’s still mellow and sweet.
Patrick Swanson. The artistic director of the operation, he developed the theatrical dimension, taking the Christmas shows from the hodge-podge of the earliest day into the sophisticated themes they now develop. It’s amazing what he and his team can do within the confines of the open Sanders stage, which was built more for lectures and maybe chamber music than for theater or dance. He has a sharp eye for detail and watches over all like a hawk.
The children’s chorus. Performing with them is a delight.
In my new novel, What’s Left, her aunt Yin has her helping book rock bands rather than working in the restaurant. For Cassia, it’s a welcome break. She can be cool and hang with her cousin Sakis’ scene.
While her mother’s a skilled violinist, Cassia herself is not a musician. In one explanation that didn’t make it to the final revision, she explains:
When it came to music, I wanted to play drums but was shunted to piano, which I hated. It just wasn’t me.
Are you part of a band? Do you sing in a choir? Play an instrument? Was there one you wanted to study but told otherwise? Do you sympathize with Cassia here?