Thursday, May 09, 2013

Pervixi ... in memoriam ABF

ABF and Mr B, 2012

I don't know what prompted me to take the above photo, but today I'm glad that I halted, called to the others to stop and smile in Great Western Road on a suddenly chilly Corpus Christi evening last year. It was my last but one meeting with one of my oldest friends. Alastair Fulton - forever ABF in my memory - died last week, and as I shall miss his funeral, in St Mary's Cathedral which we had just left when that photo was taken, this is my memory.

ABF was one of the first people I met outwith the 60-strong contingent of undergraduates from my old school when I went to Glasgow University as a fresher. He was a leading light in the Cecilian Society, and it was there that I realised what a wonderful comic actor he was - to say nothing of the wonderful tenor singing voice that years later joined the New Consort of Voices and brought him, memorably, to the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. On that occasion, he appeared at breakfast in the North College wearing yellow ochre pyjamas decorously covered by his borrowed surplice, having forgotten a dressing gown. Strangely, another ineradicable memory involves Alastair singing The Judge's Song from Trial by Jury wearing a white cardigan on his head: the Cecilian concert party used to perform for such oddly-named organisations as The Scottish Girls' Friendly Society (can this be real?) and in this particular concert performance ABF obviously felt the lack of costume and seized the cardi from one of the sopranos.

One year I invited him as my partner to the QM Ball; he was a splendid dancer and I've never been so entertained by any dance partner since (sorry, Mr B!).
The evening fled past on a wave of hilarity. Decades later, ABF loved to recount the memory of my father, appearing in his dressing gown at 3am to see his eldest daughter safely into the house and to engage this amusing young man in the kind of conversation he too loved. As ABF prepared to leave, my father told him that he would find "the usual offices", should he care to avail himself, on the landing.

Later, when I had left university and was a student at Jordanhill College, my school placement for teaching practice in Latin took me to Jordanhill College School, where ABF was now on the staff of the Classics department - a strange sense of continuity, of nothing really changing - and, five years further on, we found ourselves both on the staff of Hillhead High School, a happy coincidence that had Alastair turning up outside our marital home every morning to give me a lift to work and found us practising Byrd in a corner of the music department.

Over the years, the contact remained, intermittent but easy. ABF regarded Dunoon as dangerously rural; on one visit he became agitated as we walked along the (pavementless) coastal road at Toward. "There's someone coming," he hissed. There was indeed a distant figure, on the other side of the road, heading our way. "Do you know this person? Should we greet him?" More recently, sitting in the sun in our garden, it was he who realised that there was a thrush nesting in one of our shrubs, and carefully assisted me to retrieve the laundry from the line to avoid disturbing it. And constantly, over the years since I retired from teaching and took up blogging, he has been an assiduous and hilarious poster of comments - erudite, irascible, argumentative, hilarious. As he shared my tendency to midnight computing, I would often laugh myself into a state that rendered sleep impossible.

I realise I've only given a snapshot of a life here - the bits I saw and enjoyed. I know Alastair had his difficult times, and I know my mother used to enjoy meeting him in the cafés around Byres Road. I appreciated hugely his presence at her funeral, as I enjoyed sharing him with my family and friends at our Ruby Wedding party. I saw him twice last year - at the afore-mentioned occasion in St Mary's, and at the funeral of a friend's mother. He phoned me in Holy Week, amazingly upbeat and as amusing as ever despite the illness I'd only just heard about. His death came as a horrible surprise.

It's hard to write this in the knowledge that one of my favourite readers will not be commenting on it this evening; it's hard to think I have lost yet another person who would always have the answer to the difficult - or merely crazy - linguistic query. The heavenly choir may even now be rejoicing in the song of a new tenor - but down here the gap is immense.

Make sure they get the Latin right, Alastair ...

Pervixi; neque enim fortuna malignior unquam
Eripiet nobis quod prior hora dedit.

Petronius Arbiter

Saturday, May 04, 2013

A requiem for Philip II

As dawn breaks and church bells toll slowly all over Toledo, an elaborate funeral procession winds its way through the city's streets. Clad in black vestments of mourning, the Archbishop leads the procession, followed by the upper echelons of ecclesiastics and then the nobility, each in turn, according to his rank. The cortège stops at several pre-determined locations where the choir sings a responsory, each station representing a stage in the journey of the soul of the deceased towards eternal salvation. As the dignitaries enter the Cathedral, usually dark and sombre, they are overwhelmed by the light of thousands of candles covering the funeral monument, or catafalque, a vast construction as hight as the cathedral itself, engraved with Latin tributes in honour of the deceased. Silence descends upon the church, and the solemn invitatory Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis begins the Matins of the Dead.

On a wet Friday evening in Glasgow we experienced a wonderful performance of A Requiem for Philip II by Cristobal de Morales *(c.1500 - 1553) in the acoustically fantastic central hall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The above comes from the programme note, and Paul McCreesh, directing the Gabrieli Consort, set the scene before the singing began. We were told the performance would last about 70 minutes without a break, and would be liturgical in feel. As you can see from the photo of the performers' waiting seats (and bottles of water!), taken from my seat, we were at the front, very close to the singers.

The seventy minutes passed without my noticing them. I have never been so immersed in a performance, so swept along on a tide of plainsong and polyphony that I never once looked at my watch. The singing was peerless - four countertenors, two tenors, four baritones, two basses and, doubling the bass part, the muted bajon (dulcian) - with solo groups and tutti ensembles, solo plainsong prayers and readings  and the full-bodied singing of the mass. I felt I was a part of it; it's the kind of music I love to sing and I felt every cadence, every nuance, every false relation in such a way that when it was finished I was exhausted in the same exhilarated way that I feel after singing myself. The moment when the singers turned and walked off the stage and away in a long, singing procession round two of the adjoining galleries was electrifying. I also realise how privileged I am in that my education and subsequent experience in choirs mean that I can understand Latin well enough to participate in what is being sung without constantly referring to the programme, and that I was sufficiently familiar with the words of the mass and the plainsong customarily used for, say, the Sursum Corda to be immersed in the liturgy and to delight in the resonant tones of the bass singing the priest's part.

I realise as I write this that I'm doing a very inadequate job of conveying a very special occasion. The sizeable audience, completely silent and still for the whole performance, didn't erupt in applause; rather this began slowly, gently, as people shook themselves from their absorption, and grew to a sustained crescendo as the choir returned for several bows, only dying when the conductor had disappeared down the stairs away from the hall. We hurtled down the road to the ferry in a whirl of exuberance with our heads full of polyphony and caught a ferry within an hour of the last notes being sung.

The kind of evening I don't get very often, the kind of music that makes me glad to be alive...

*You can hear bits of the performance here, as well as buy it!