Saturday, January 02, 2010

What am I listening to?

I don't tend to listen to any particular music more than once in any given time unless I'm learning it: in a house full of live music and CDs and Radio 3 there seems not enough time in any life to go over and over the one piece. I suppose that's why I tend not to listen to music on my iPod - talking books or poetry seem more appealing. But after joining briefly in Kelvin's little chat about the perceived boredom factor of the King's College carol service, I found myself arrested by a lovely piece of music in a great performance and thinking: This is what I am listening to, right now, and it's special.

"This" was a piece of choral music, Nesciens Mater, by Jean Mouton. His real name was apparently Jean de Holluige, and scholars have yet to discover why he was known as "Mouton", but he was born in the Pas de Calais before 1459 and rose to become court composer to the French kings Louis XII and Francis I. The motet I was hearing is based partly on plainsong melodies, distributed among eight voices in an elaborate canon - but that's not what you hear. Instead the music transcends its mathematically precise construction to create a wonderfully spiritual, contemplative meditation on the Virgin Birth - magical, really. And the performance, by the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardner, was perfect.

And that brings me back to what I was trying to say about the King's service. Ok, I made the point that every time they sing this service there is someone coming to it for the first time - look here for this year's example of discovery - and it is good that what they hear should be flawless. But is it necessary to assume that the perfection born of months of practice and disciplined learning is boring? Boring for whom? Maybe those of us who grew up with Carols for Choirs may indeed feel we don't want to sing the Willcocks descant to "O Come all ye Faithful" again - but you try singing another one and you'll soon realise, if you're musical enough, why the Willcocks has survived so long.

I hinted a couple of posts ago that the magic does go out of some of the familiar seasonal rituals as we grow older. It's be a bit sad if it didn't. But I don't think we should equate our need to provide what we see as new and exciting with the need of others to experience it - expecially at Christmas. Now, go and find that BBC record* with the Jean Mouton on it, and forget everything else.

*BBC Music Magazine Collection, Vol.16 No.4: Christmas Choral Music

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