How to frighten yourself in five languages
Yesterday, I went to what I thought would be a relaxing sing-through of familiar pieces. A day with my friends to round off the year, at a place I have visited all my life to play music. My mother went there before I was born, so I took my eight-year-old son along, to get more acquainted. Easy Mozart, I thought. Maybe some Christmas carols he might know.
This year things were different. We squeezed onto the end of a row just as the choir was about to start something madrigally in Latin. My son has only just done Grade 1 music exams, so I grinned encouragingly and set off, whispering that the next piece would surely be easier.
It was not. It was Poulenc. Gorgeous Poulenc, but without perfect pitch it’s a bugger to sing, especially if you’ve never seen the thing before. And in French. By this time, my son was rolling his eyes at me in the “you’ve got about five minutes before I get really bolshy” way an eight-year-old has.
I let him loll by the fire while the orchestra had their turn before lunch.
On this ‘Midwinter Music’ day, you never know who’s going to turn up, and with which instruments. It’s a musical lucky dip. There was an orchestra, of sorts. I hadn’t taken my cello, so when I saw only two others, I wished I had. I needn’t have worried. We had Alison: a bass trombonist of such staggering talent she can turn her embouchure to anything. If you have never heard a trombone picking its way delicately around the cello part of a Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga symphony, you need to get out more. She even made it sound pizzicato. It is the aural equivalent of an elephant doing the Argentine Tango in stilettos. When she attacked the last – frighteningly fast – movement of Mozart’s 29th, I had eyes for nobody else. The woman’s a genius. She got her own special applause at the end. Next year I’m taking my cello and having a laugh on the back desk with her.
By the end of the day, my son had looked bemusedly at pages of Russian, French, Latin and Spanish. There had been one piece in English, and that was an Orlando Gibbons arrangement of the old cries of London, so then he got confused with mussels, oysters, corn plasters and the ‘finest writing ink’.
The Russian we sang was some of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (Всенощное бдѣніе, Vsénoshchnoye bdéniye). We had a choice of reading the actual Russian script or a transliteration, but frankly the diction of the choir as a whole sounded as if we had left our teeth in another room. There weren’t enough copies for everyone, so my son and I were sharing with Nick, a bass standing behind us. He is a semi-professional singer, and his rich, confident voice reached over our shoulders with a surprisingly authoritative command of Russian. We had to towel down slightly afterwards, but you can’t have those complicated Russian consonants without some attendant splashing. It’s like singing a slightly melted version of German, and no conductor expects to make it though a committed chorus singing Brahms or Bach without the odd shower.
We cheered up with a cuppa on the way home, and a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch for my son. I’ll fumigate the car tomorrow.
The more languages they encounter when they’re that young, the better. Let’s them feel like speaking other tongues isn’t something out of the ordinary. I’d forgotten all about Monster Munch… one of the things my kid’s missing out on not being brought up in England. I used to love them.