I was more interested in the church music than the service - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I was more interested in the church music than the service

A delightful short song called Nymphs and Shepherds used to be played at the very least once per week on the BBC during the 1940s. The words were a complete mystery to me in those days:

Nymphs and Shepherds come away,
In the groves let's sport and play,
For this, this is Flora's Holy Day.

I always thought it was Flora's 'holiday' not 'Holy Day' but an article I found on the Internet some years ago tells me that, 'Saint Flora, Virgin, Patron of the abandoned, of converts, single laywomen, and victims of betrayal has her Feast Day on 5th October. She died in 1347.' I venture to suggest that everybody who listened to the wireless during the 1940s was familiar with the version recorded in 1929 by the Manchester Children's Choir accompanied by the Hallé Orchestra and conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty. The song featured in many Forces' Favourites request programmes but was also played on the slightest pretext at other times. I must have first become really aware of that recording about 1941 and even then the record used by the BBC was scratchy as a result of the constant playing. In 2010 I had an email from a visitor to my website, Ian Jones, whose father was a member of the choir that had made that 1929 recording. He had found my piece about Nymphs and Shepherds on my website. This is an extract from his message (included here with his permission):

"I have just discovered your fascinating site whilst searching the internet for information on Nymphs and Shepherds. My late father sang on this record as he was, at the time, residing in Styal Homes - now a women's prison. I vaguely remember him singing it in his old age to us and it was definitely 'Flora's holiday' when he sang it. I remember my father telling me that they went to several rehearsals before the actual recording. He also attended the re-union in Manchester in the 1970's and apparently some ladies remembered him even though it was over forty years since the recording. I was interested in your information about Radio Relay. I can remember a box in our house that was left on all day when we were out to deter burglars."

Having found that 1929 recording on YouTube a few years ago, I was immediately reminded of another BBC favourite during the war: Ernest Lough, the boy soprano, singing Oh for the wings of a dove composed by Mendelssohn in 1844. That recording, also hissy and scratchy, was made in 1927 and can now be found on YouTube. I got to know both those songs so well from hearing them on the wireless that eventually I used to join in when I thought no-one was listening to me. I suspect that is one of the reasons why Mum tried to get me into the Wakefield Cathedral School as a chorister in 1946. More about that on a later page.

In the early 1940s most of my personal experiences of music came from Christ Church, adjacent to my school on Thornes Lane. Then, every Sunday morning from the age of about eight I attended Matins at 10.30am because there were no services especially for children. I can't remember now how or why I came to start but I do know neither of my parents ever accompanied me and not a single one of my fellow classmates attended. I always walked to Matins on my own, smartly turned out in what was known as Sunday Best: polished black shoes, white shirt, tie and my best jacket and short trousers. The streets were usually deserted; there was little reason for anyone, other than shift workers, to be out and about early on wartime Sundays because all the shops were closed. I always sat on my own on the front row on the right hand side, where bridegroom and best man traditionally sit.

Looking back, I have to concede that I attended Matins more out of interest for the music than for any religious conviction. A choir was essential because Morning Prayer was always sung. There was a small but reasonably competent choir consisting, as you would expect in wartime, mainly of female voices. There were just three or four men, all of them elderly, but they made up for their lack of numbers by the enthusiasm and fortissimo of their singing. As a result, most hymns were sung at a volume which rattled the beautiful stained glass windows behind the altar.

The regular congregation was also very small, consisting almost entirely of elderly ladies scattered widely amongst the aisles either side of the long nave; they used to occupy the same seat every week. Several of those regular parishioners also sang the individual harmony parts, producing a very odd 'surround sound' musical effect. Since the congregation was so small and so widely dispersed, the locum Vicar always had to talk, pray, and preach in a stentorian voice to make himself heard in all parts. It must have been very dispiriting for him. What with one thing and another, the Sunday morning service was always loud so there was no danger of anyone falling asleep.

From my favourite position I had an excellent view of the organ's two consoles and the organist's back, which is why I had chosen it. I marvelled at the way he could use both hands on the keys, both feet on the pedals, and still have time to turn the sheets of music over and push and pull the organ's many stops. I noticed that sometimes the stops seemed to move in groups without any obvious intervention by the organist. It was only later that a different organist explained to me the basic mechanics of the instrument. I lustily joined in the hymns but also, very hesitatingly at first, the psalms and canticles. I used to take Dad's hymn book, Ancient and Modern, (which I still have) with me because it had the music in. Before many months had passed I was able to sing, in my squeaky treble, any of the soprano, alto, tenor and bass notes; I started to learn about harmony and modulation as I did so.

Prior to the start of the service the organist used to write on a small blackboard, visible only to the choristers and me, details of the chants that were to be used for the psalms, the canticles, and the versicles and responses. I had no access to a book containing the music for those chants, but the regular Prayer Book did indicate the Plainchant notation. I eventually learned all the chants off by heart.

Because the Te Deum is quite long it was, and probably still is, traditional to change tunes twice during its singing. My favourite Te Deum setting was made up of chants composed by three different composers: Woodward, Smart and Turle. It appeared on the organist's blackboard as 'WST in D'. The first 13 verses were in the key of D Major. Then, on the words 'Thou art the King of Glory', there was a sudden change to the sub-dominant G Major. The final chant, starting with the words 'O Lord Save Thy People', started back in D Major, flirted with A Major in the second bar, detoured around B Minor in the third, before returning triumphantly to the home key of D Major. I was fascinated by these harmonies and it was how I learned for the first time that pieces of classical music sound most satisfactory when they start and finish in the same key. We always sang the English words not the Latin ones, but someone taught me the first four lines of the Te Deum in Latin anyway. Some of the English words, let alone the Latin ones, were incomprehensible to me: for example, cherubim, seraphim, and vouchsafe, and the phrase about not abhorring the Virgin's womb.

By 1942 I had become seriously interested in the BBC classical music programmes. They were often preceded by the wireless equivalent of programme notes, read by the announcer. I found those especially useful in my quest for further information. I learned for the first time such nuggets as why Haydn's Surprise and Farewell Symphonies are so-called. I memorised elements of the biographies of famous composers and I remember hearing, for the very first time, a complete performance of Handel's Messiah - and I learned from the BBC announcer that that there is no definite article in the title. The most exasperating thing about the classical music programmes was that I had no means of replaying any of the pieces which particularly took my fancy. After hearing Aaron Copland's El Salón México when I was about 9 years old and being captivated by its jazzy rhythms, I had to wait several years before I heard it again and it was many years later still before I acquired my own recording to play whenever I wanted.

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