Sunday, 24 December 2017

Advent, door 24

Christmas Eve already, and there can't be a more appropriate way to end this sequence of seasonal posts than with one of the most memorable pieces of Christmas poetry.

For some years I sang with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and every year, there'd be a series of very grand carol concerts in the Philharmonic Hall. There'd be a star reader - Richard Baker, most years; Brian Kay; Alan Titchmarsh; Aled Jones. Some were decidedly better than others.

There were carols, of course. And orchestral favourites. And fun.

But the most moving part of the evening was always the same. It was the final sequence. The lights were dimmed, we sang Andrew Carter's wonderful arrangement of 'Stile Nacht'. The reader read 'Christmas Landscape' by Laurie Lee and then the band played something appropriate (never more so than the lovey 'Cradle Song' by Martin Dalby). Then, finally, the moment for everyone to stand and sing 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' at the limit of their lung power, by way of release.

The formula was every bit as memorable as 'Nine Lessons and Carols' without in the slightest bit being an attempt to copy it. How could you? But in spite of the musicians and the wonderful music, in spite of being in one of the best choirs it's been my privilege to sing in, and in spite of the privilege of singing behind a professional symphony orchestra for so long, it was this poem - words, rather than music - that made it.

Tonight the wind gnaws
With teeth of glass,
The jackdaw shivers
In caged branches of iron,
The stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth
Of vole and badger,
Silver agonies of breath
In the nostril of the fox,
Ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,
No food for the pilgrim;
The fruit tree is bare,
The rose bush a thorn
And the ground is bitter with stones.

But the mole sleeps, and the hedgehog
Lies curled in a womb of leaves,
The bean and the wheat-seed
Hug their germs in the earth
And the stream moves under the ice.

Tonight there is no moon,
But a new star opens
Like a silver trumpet over the dead.
Tonight in a nest of ruins
The blessed babe is laid.

And the fir tree warms to a bloom of candles,
And the child lights his lantern,
Stares at his tinselled toy;
And our hearts and hearths
Smoulder with live ashes.

In the blood of our grief
The cold earth is suckled,
In our agony the womb
Convulses its seed;
In the first cry of anguish
The child’s first breath is born.

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