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Christmas as a City organist

Don’t you get fed up of playing ‘Once in Royal’? People ask. Not really to be honest! This one certainly is one that organists know VERY well, however... How interesting that the tradition of having a solo first verse has become so much part of the Christmas soundscape – a tradition dating back to the early twentieth century. Each performance of a carol, even a well known one, is slightly different according to the occasion, and there are lots of different occasions – from fairly small and intimate services, to much larger events. As an organist accompanying a congregation, we can do lots of subtle things with our accompaniment to lift the words, with the number of notes in a chord, the choice of stops, holding or releasing notes between lines, reharmonising, and of course descants, all contributing to shaping the occasion.

The Christmas season for churches begins as soon as the autumn starts, with meetings about music, confirming dates and musical requirements of each organisation holding a service. I’ve usually started thinking about the repertoire far earlier in the year, having noted down ideas at the end of the previous year, especially keeping an eye out for pieces other choirs are doing and which might fit in well to a service. That’s a good way to find hidden gems!

As organist at the church of St Mary-le-Bow, in the heart of the City of London, the Christmas carol season consists of a fortnight of services, sometimes with two a day. This year, so many things were up in the air, and were changing right until the last minute – even changes of time, and changes of repertoire, and sadly some cancellations. It was very much a case of day by day. Each service last no longer than an hour, and contains congregational carols, choir carols, a short homily, and seasonal organ music.

As a City church, we don’t do services for Christmas or Easter, so our last service is for the parish itself – attracting a large congregation of loyal members of our church and community. For that one, I conduct the singers down in the body of the church, and we bring in an organist to accompany.

It’s very easy for churches and choirs to keep churning out the same music year by year, service by service, so I always try to find a balance between old and new, familiar and less familiar, traditional and contemporary. The service for the Britain-Australia Society always provides an opportunity for some different music – some Australian carols! This year I included a wonderful arrangement by June Nixon, former Organist and Director of Music at St. Paul's Cathedral Melbourne. (St Mary-le-Bow houses a memorial bust of Admiral Arthur Phillip (1738 - 1814) and is holds an annual memorial service each year, so Australian services are familiar here).

Hang on, a church organist job with no Sunday services, no Christmas, no Easter? “That music be brilliant, but what do you actually do?” is the reaction of many! Trust me, like anything worth doing, it fills time! The range of services is perhaps broader than in some churches – not just morning and evening Sunday services, but livery services, carol services, memorials, lectures, weddings, and special liturgies dotted across the year. Some of the services are an occasion for companies to swear in new officers. But the church is above a community, or perhaps really several different overlapping communities, who come together for different occasions. Unlike a ‘Sunday’ congregation, it’s rare for the whole community to come together very regularly, but rather over a wide variety of events. People come from far and wide, perhaps originally finding the church as a result of working nearby in the City’s financial and business district. As the church’s organist and Director of Music, providing music for some of the ancient livery companies each year is a particular joy, and involves choosing music to suit many occasions, usually very celebratory. The year is broadly split into three seasons: the Lent and Easter season, the summer Livery company season, and of course, Christmas.

One particular joy is working with singers – usually a quartet of singers fitting into the organ loft (yes it’s pretty tight!). With a group of professional singers, there is no need to conduct them as such, but we perform more as a chamber ensemble, with everyone listening and looking out for the gestures of the music. I’m very lucky to work with a wonderful group of singers here, who sensitively work with each other and the organ to find a corporate sound which blends in the acoustic of the church, but which crucially preserves their individuality as professional singers. This year our group of musicians had a couple of ‘away fixtures’ at the NED hotel – a luxury 5 star along the street. This provided a good contrast of scene, as well as making connections in the local area.

My final Christmas performance this year was slightly different - as a singer at a charity carols at Trafalgar square, in support of Christian Aid. It was cold and slightly damp, but being part of a group (made up of members of three churches: Crown Court Church of Scotland, St Columba’s church, Pont Street, and Bloomsbury Baptist Church) was so uplifting, with a massed group singing lustily and without accompaniment. Seeing a group of teenagers tag onto the end of the group with carol sheets and request ‘Silent night’ was notably memorable. A reminder that corporate and community singing is special to every culture, and we must be grateful for the ability to share in this. It makes me think - what is it about 'silent night' that is so special as to find a hush even out in the busy city?

Well, unbelievably, that’s another season nearly at a close – but it isn’t even Christmas yet! We are still in Advent, and the season continues until the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th!

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Matthew Silverman
Matthew Silverman
Dec 19, 2021

Thanks for this fascinating insight into Christmas in a City church!

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