Posted on December 18, 2007 - by MG
For me, Christmas always begins with the Physics Department Carol Service in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Organised by atmospheric physicist, my old pal Jim Williamson and the former Secretary of the Bodleian Library, Charles Mould (who played organ at my wedding!), the impromptu choir consists of Jim’s friends from the Christ Church Cathedral Voluntary Choir, people from St Cross College like Becs and I (and indeed, Jim and Charles), and some physicists. We get together at 2.45pm for a very tightly managed rehearsal and the carol concert starts at 4.30pm. Afterwards choir and audience troop upstairs to the wood-panelled upper room and have wine and warm mince pies. It’s very seasonal!
The service is traditional style Lessons and Carols, like at King’s College Cambridge (but we have only two lessons). The Vicar of St. Mary’s takes the service, which always reminds me of my great affection for the Church of England. (I went to very High Church Anglican schools until I was 16.)
Thankfully I’ve been singing in this choir for about 19 years now…since I was a graduate student at St Cross. Only the fact that I’ve sung most of the difficult music before saves me, because as a sight-reader I am terrible!
This year though, Jim managed to pick a bunch of pieces I hadn’t sung before, or not for many years. Including the motet Hodie Christus Natus Est by Poulenc. I think we did it once before and I barely scraped through…
We also sang the motet O Magnum Mysterium by the sublime Spanish renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria. Victoria is one of my very, very favourites, in my opinion he’s better than Byrd, Tallis and even Palestrina. In fact, when I die, I want Victoria’s Requiem sung, with the deliciously gloomy Taedet, please, thank you very much, and lots of tears from my grieving relatives, okay?
Here’s the Taedet from Victoria’s Requiem sung by the brilliant Gabrieli Consort, including my friend the Chilean tenor Rodrigo del Pozo…who appears as a character in Joshua Book 2! (bringing some important and very surprising news to Josh and his mother…)
And here are the wonderful, sorrowful words in which someone asks of God – “What the heck do you know about our suffering? And who are you to judge?” – a thought that even the most devout believer will have at times of difficulty. I admire the lyric for its brutal honesty.
(translated from the Latin)
My soul is weary of my life;
I will leave my complaint upon myself;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
I will say unto God, Do not condemn me;
show me wherefore thou contendest with me.
Is it good unto thee that thou shouldest oppress,
that thou shouldest despise the work of thine hands,
and shine upon the counsel of the wicked?
Hast thou eyes of flesh? or seest thou as man seeth?
Are thy days as the days of man?
are thy years as man’s days,
that thou inquirest after mine iniquity,
and searchest after my sin?
Thou knowest that I am not wicked;
and there is none that can deliver out of thine hand.
And for another treat, here’s the O Magnum Mysterium performed by a Spanish choir.