Carolling in the city

Music is integral to worship in the Judeo-Christian faith and Scripture is replete with hymns and canticles of praise. At Christmastime, carollers go round singing ditties like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which enumerates a series of gifts...

Carolling in the city

Music is integral to worship in the Judeo-Christian faith and Scripture is replete with hymns and canticles of praise. At Christmastime, carollers go round singing ditties like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which enumerates a series of gifts given on each of the days.

Singer-songwriter John Denver, who had performed at the NCPA some years ago, sang it on an album of the same name. There are countless parodies, one of which is called ‘The Twelve Drinks of Christmas’!

Interestingly, a special carol service created by an English Ecclesiast named Edward White Benson, the first Bishop of Truro, was devised to protect people from too much of the wrong kind of Christmas spirit, if you know what I mean!

Truro’s service, properly known as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, was first held on Christmas Eve 1918 in Cambridge University's King's College Chapel, London. Today, it is commemorated globally in Anglican churches everywhere including St Thomas Cathedral, the oldest British era structure in Mumbai.

An imposing Gothic edifice with a high vaulted ceiling and ornate stained glass windows, St Thomas resounds to the sound of music when Ravi Joshua, choirmaster and arguably, the country's finest organist, plays the 120-year-old pipe organ.

The service consists of carols and the reading of nine passages from the Bible. The opening carol is always 'Once in Royal David's City' which, for those who don't know, is the little town of Bethlehem where this correspondent has been privileged to attend Midnight Mass and a memorable carol service in the fabled Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity built in 333 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The night before Christmas, Manger Square is a sight to behold with a myriad choirs from around the world resplendent in colourful costumes singing carols in diverse languages.

And just like the angels and shepherds did 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, choristers sing carols, traditional and new, under the gaze of tourists, pilgrims, Arab Christians and Muslims and young Israeli soldiers.

In India, the nearest equivalent of the Manger Square phenomenon is the Prabhu Yeshu Janmotsav at Chowpatty which first resounded with the joyous carols in 1965 thanks to Tara Cherian, wife of Dr P V Cherian, physician, surgeon and Governor of Maharashtra from 1964-69.

Also to be commended is the Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy’s two-day Festival of Festive Music at the NCPA featuring choirs from across India and the Cantata Choir which ushered in the Christmastide with three recent concerts.

Accompanying both choirs was Marilynne Chhabra who has played the pianoforte for 34 years, for the Cantata Choir started by Joachim Buehler, the first Director of the Max Mueller Bhavan. The Cantata is now conducted by Olga Collaco.

And then there's the fabulous Cantori Puertes, orchestrated annually by Celeste Cordo at St Peter's Church Bandra to a packed congregation. Church concerts, as always, are free and open to the public.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols usually has an ‘anthem’ from Handel's 'Messiah' which has been performed in Mumbai by the Paranjoti  Academy Chorus founded by AIR's Victor Paranjoti who passed on the baton to Coomi Wadia who has been conducting it for 51 years now.

A rendition of the iconic 'Hallelujah' at the NCPA's Golden Anniversary inaugural gala last month by PAC along with the Salvation Singers, Bangalore Men and the Goa University Choir received loud applause.

Hosannas to the German, French and British soldiers who declared an unofficial truce in 1914 during World War One and suspended fighting to celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, playing football and singing carols! ‘Happy Xmas’ (War is Over) was written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and performed with the Harlem Community Children’s Choir “to end the Vietnam war.”

Lennon taught the accompanying guitarists by asking them to "pretend it's Christmas." When one of the guitarists said he was Jewish, John asked him to “pretend it's your birthday then." Tragically, Lennon was shot dead three weeks before Christmas.

One of the most enchanting carols, ‘Silent Night’ marked its 200th anniversary last year. It was conceived in 1816 as a poem by an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr.

Two years later, the organ in St. Nicholas Church, a small village near Salzburg, went kaput. Fr Mohr gave the poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber who composed the classic melody (for guitar) finishing it in time for Midnight Mass. The rest, as they say, is history. This song of hope and consolation is performed globally today in over 300 languages, including Hindi.

And to think that in 1664 Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas and all its festivities, including carol-singing in the UK by an Act of Parliament! How extraordinary! For, music is the speech of angels and carols make Christmas even more meaningful and memorable.