In search of a bit of Mendelssohn Perfection

It was during rehearsals on a November evening 33 years ago when Mr Walker, my choirmaster came to sit with me to share some wisdom. I still remember our chat like it was yesterday…

…For weeks and weeks before this I had been trundling along after school to my local church St Mary’s Whitchurch in Cardiff. On two evenings of the week (Tuesday’s and Friday’s) the full choir would be there for practice. On these other evenings it would be just me and our choirmaster and organist, Malcolm Walker. On these evenings we would rehearse a solo I was due to sing after Christmas, Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer

Those who know the music (Wings of a Dove) will appreciate that it is long (about 13 or 14 minutes), that it is musically challenging  – starts off shifting from G minor to G major with an echo of each scale brought in and intertwined throughout the whole piece.  And that it has a solo part for a Chorister that soars out of the music into a realm of its own.

On that particular November evening (I was 13) I felt I already knew the music inside out and back to front. I was Head Chorister at that time with a variety of medals from the RSCM to prove the fact! I was tired after a day at school and probably wanted to be out with my mates. All a bit fed up I gently suggested hollered out to Mr Walker “I think we have done enough practise now!”
I can remember hearing Mr W leave the organ loft and walk down the church to the lectern where I was singing from. I remember looking upwards into an empty church rather than look back to see him approach. The stained glass on the western wall had lost its light in the late evening. It looked ugly now – dimly seen in the dark. I knew I must have said something wrong.
He asked me to sit down. His began talking to me in questions…”why do you think we are rehearsing this so much? Who do you think you are singing to? Why do you think I have picked you to sing the solo? My answers were half-baked!
…“Sometimes in life”, he went on to say, “we should really aim for our very best. Whether it’s for God or the congregation, or the choir behind you…or even yourself, it just doesn’t matter…it’s the striving to do something better that matters.”
He went on to explain that singing was all about the “mix” of words and music. And to sing the words well you have to understand them…in the case of Hear my Prayer (taken from Psalm 55) you have the voice of King David – in his time one of the most powerful men on earth – feeling that all he wants to do is fly off into the wilderness, build himself some shelter, and stay there forever.  We hear the voice of a broken man!
Musicians and artists reading this will know that feeling of “getting inside” a piece and that feeling you can get of being transported away in time and space. Well by March the next year (after continual rehearsal and reflection on the mix of words and the music) I walked to the lectern and after the brief organ introduction started to sing. My eyes were once again focused on the west-window. I did not look up or down. I just stared on the twisted cold grey lead of the window…I had at last understood what Mendelssohn had done. He had put the words of a man screaming and crying to his God and set it to music. Difficult music! Sometime overtly discordant and awkward music…and in the next few bars beautiful music and on top of all this he added the voice of a child to simply fly way above and beyond it all!
When the choir had gone silent, and the solo bit ebbed away to its quiet conclusion I stood motionless and remember thinking over a crescendo of applause that the real “bravos” should really be addressed at Mendelssohn and the stained glass artist and the choirmaster and the stonemasons for creating a church with a wonderful acoustic…and how one boy who momentarily found himself in a spotlight, was just one piece in an enormous jigsaw. It was a humbling experience.

Now as a grown-up and a dad I look back to those moments with an acute awareness that while I still strive to make things as good as I can for me and the girls, I do not have a Mendelssohn template to follow and a mentor guiding me through. My “mix” now is children and parenting and OnlyDads and work and relationships and friendships and if I am to get these right and worthy of those around me then I must continue to try to improve.

We all have days of doubt and worry. Today I need to know that my choirmaster was right and that as long as we are striving and searching towards something better – then that is what really matters.

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About onlydads

Single Dad living near Totnes in Devon. I founded www.onlydads.org in 2007 and live with my daughters Priya, 14 and Anya 11. I write about single parenting, work, overcoming trials and tribulations and sometimes not overcoming trials and tribulations.
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4 Responses to In search of a bit of Mendelssohn Perfection

  1. There are so many comments I would like to make in response to this piece Bob. (I don’t know how I missed the fact that you now had a blog, but I had until seeing your tweet just now. Irrelevant. I’ve found it now and will be back.)
    But I guess what I’m trying to say is, I know the music and I know the feeling you have outlined – oh so well. On a positive day, I would at least take away a smile at the last comment: “as long as we are striving and searching towards something better – then that is what really matters.” … and yet currently, it is how I feel, but only in the context of (and I’m talking from a purely personal perspective now) the fact that I never, ever quite get things right, however hard I try.
    As parents, do we all just wish our time away … hoping and fighting to be something better until there is nothing left of ourselves and our children have grown up and are doing their own thing anyway .. or is it just me?!
    I guess I’m not doing that ‘positive day’ thing today … Sorry 😦
    Wonderful post. Very thought provoking xx

  2. Rosanne says:

    ….’We all have days of doubt and worry. Today I need to know that my choirmaster was right and that as long as we are striving and searching towards something better – then that is what really matters’…..

    This is so true I dont think the doubt or worry ever ends, my children are now all grown up and given me beautiful grandchildren but I know that I am constantly aiming and searching for better, either for them or their children. It would be a very stagnant existance if we did not aim to improve. I never really thought I did get it right but have three amazing children so I guess the searching did work although I didnt realise it at the time and made many mistakes.
    From following you for some time and reading your new blog I know that all your hard work is paying off in the joy that you get from your daughters, they truly are two very lucky young ladies. You may feel that you did not have a mentor guiding you along but your girls certainly have one in you. xx

    • onlydads says:

      These are thoughtful and kind words – thank you.

      I really am not sure that I am giving my daughters the role model (mentor) they deserve though. I think like MJM (above) I get things wrong a lot. That said, I do try to take heart from the fact I recognise this and want to do better.

      Bob X

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