29 April 2011

Wedding Fever

If you have been able to avoid Royal Wedding Fever this week you have been unusually lucky.  It seems to me that it has affected every country on the globe, and certainly it hasn't escaped the media – if not the people – here in south east Asia.  And why not?  Weddings are great excuses for happiness and celebration and their anticipation is always a lot of fun.  I should know.  I've been to thousands, three of them my own.

This should strike HORROR into the hearts of
all right-thinking church organists
Like any church organist, weddings were both the bane and the benefit of my existence; the latter, simply because of the extra income they provided, the former because of the downright dreariness and unbelievable unimaginativeness of the music chosen.  When I started, for example, just about every wedding opened with some arrangements of the Water Music before the Bride wandered in to the Bridal Chorus from Wagner's Löhengrin.  A couple of hymns – usually "Love Divine" and "Praise my Soul" – a Psalm (either 67 or 23, in the latter case it usually involved that God-awful tune "Crimond"), a bit of soft mood music in the bit while they sign the registers, and then out to Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It all began to change in the 1960s when, in the wake of one otherwise unmemorable royal wedding (Princess Alexandria in 1963), Widor's Toccata took over from the Mendelssohn, while Charles and Di (1981) added "Let the Bright Seraphim" to the signing-the-registers musical interlude.  The latter pair also gave us Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary, but that had already been growing in popularity over the previous years as anti-German sentiment swept Wagner off the agenda.

Now you can buy (if you are terminally stupid) whole discs of "suggested wedding music", none of which is of any use whatsoever and most of it is wholly and utterly inappropriate.  There's even plenty of web space given over to suggested wedding music; there's also a lot of web space given over to hard-core porn, and, on balance, I think the latter is less offensive.

I had the good fortune (if that's what it was) to be assistant organist at the church which, in its day, had the highest wedding rate of the entire Church of England.  St Michael's Aldershot was the church of choice for soldiers wanting a posh wedding (and which ones didn't?).  Aldershot was the Home of the British Army and, when I was there, you knew it; the place was teeming with squaddies and their hangers-onners, many of whom had to get married in some haste.  Our record day saw seven weddings back-to-back, but the average was nearer four every Saturday.  I was there for seven years, so you can do the maths if you wish.  The fact is, Peter Mound, my Organist, had long given up reconciling the financial benefits with the musical detriments, and I was given the whole lot to play for and advise.

St Michael's Church Aldershot
And it's that advising role which is the organist's biggest bane.  Every Thursday after choir practice, a bevy of harried brides-to-be with Mothers in charge (but potential grooms using the excuse of military exercises to keep a low profile) would wait to discuss the music and, while the debates were often colourful, heated and extended, the result was always the same; Wagner, Mendelssohn/Widor and the usual hymns/psalms.  However much I tried to head them off in the direction of Marcel Dupré's Prelude & Fugue in B (my party piece at the time) or Vierne's Final to go out to, and Trumpet Tunes by Stanley, Purcell and C S Lang (there's a great Fanfare by him which I did manage to persuade one bride to use) to go in to, in the end, tradition always overcame individuality, and another half-hour on auto-pilot at the organ beckoned.

For a very brief time I stood in as organist at a church in Shrewsbury.  It put me off church organ duties for life.  The vicar was moronic (he loved the hymn-tune "Richmond" and had it every service,  getting very angry when I was allowed to choose the hymns and chose four all with the tune "Richmond", ending the service with a Choral Prelude on "Richmond" by a composer whose name I have long forgotten - the copy of which has passed from my possession into that of a Shropshire landfill long ago) and the congregation largely under the impression that they knew all there was to know about music.  Wedding discussions were dreadful, with outrageous suggestions which needed very careful handling.  I remember an extraordinarily fat bride demanding she had the Wagner; only when I pointed out she had asked for a choir - in those days everybody sang the Wagner to the words "Here comes the bride/All fat and wide" – and at the end of her trudge up the aisle she would be met by hordes of giggling choir boys, did she take up my suggestion of the much leaner Jeremiah Clarke tune.  It became something of a contest to challenge the organist with something unknown and then watch him squirm as he tried to work out whether he could play it.  It caught me out too often and I mentioned this to a the organist of a neighbouring church, David Grundy.  "Ah yes", he said, "They phone up at all hours of the day and night and sing down the phone; Lah-la-la, Loo-loo-loo-loo-laaah-leeeeh, Lah-la-la, Loo Lee Loo Lee.  And get quite taken aback when I immediately tell them; Ah yes, that's Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor".  "How do you do it?" asked I.  "Simple.  Just watch the TV soaps and make a note of any wedding music that comes up; it will be requested within the week".  So I did that and, more than that, I unearthed an invaluable pair of books which lists in a clever way almost every theme from classical music.  It still sits by my desk, and while I never play for weddings these days, with a couple of notable exceptions, organists still phone and email with desperate pleas and are astounded when I quickly tell them the tune they seek.  I will never divulge these books; but they are priceless to any church organist.

This is NOT one for a village church organ
Unfortunately I can't fully escape wedding duties. 7500 miles is a useful excuse but no real barrier when it comes to attending family weddings back in the UK.  These are the worst, because emotional pressures are put on you to relent to the most impossible of demands.  A nephew, marrying in a small country church in Buckinghamshire (not a million miles from the home village of a certain Ms Middleton) presented me with a fait accompli.  His potential father-in-law was a keen organ fan and had a big record collection which included the pieces he wanted me to play for the wedding.  They came in to a movement from a Bach Trio Sonata and went out to Henry Smart's Postlude in D.  Foolishly assuming he knew the church and its organ, I agreed.  Unfortunately, I thought he meant Smart's Postlude in C, which is a standard, and only at the last minute did I realise he didn't.  A call to a publisher to get a special print-run sent out to me in KL revealed the full horror.  Not only was it very long, it was also extraordinarily difficult with a truly virtuoso pedal part.  I learnt it on the KL Klais, but when faced with three-and-a-half stops on a rickety mechanical action organ with less than a quarter of the pedal board functioning, it defied even my attempts and the bride's father said wryly as I met him over champagne at the reception; "It didn't sound much like my recording".  Luckily the Trio Sonata – a physical impossibility on the available resources – didn't matter so much since it took the procession less than 30 seconds to traverse the length of the church and by that time, with a judicious tempo, I only needed to play two bars a couple of times and miss out the pedal entry.

I'll be glued to the TV for THE wedding, but the champagne I'll be quaffing will not be primarily to celebrate William and Kate's big day, but to toast to my success in having left all that nonsense behind.

A postscript.  Why did I have three weddings when I have only ever had one wife?  The vagaries of Malaysian law meant that my Malaysian wife and I had to marry in the UK (which we did) before it could be formalised by the Malaysian government (which it was).  We wanted a church wedding in Kuching (which we had, only after presenting the authorities with our Malaysian wedding certificate which was, in turn, derived from our UK wedding certificate).  On the very day of the third and final wedding in St Joseph's Cathedral Kuching, the priest asked us if we had ever been married before, to which we both responded "Yes, Twice", and a lot of explaining needed to be done before the wedding went ahead.  Gareth Cowell, an old friend from Bangor who happened to be staying with me at the time, was press-ganged into being Best Man and into playing the organ and, without music, attempted to play my wife in with something suitable.  Sadly, nobody recognised what he was doing and the congregation stayed firmly rooted to their seats and engrossed in their conversations as the wedding got underway.  I realised than that there were some benefits in keeping things traditional.

1 comment:

  1. Peter Almond03 May, 2011 02:32

    Hi Marc, A very amusing and entirely believable blog. I think it's true to say that most organists have their own particular favourite wedding-related stories; such occasions are ripe for the absurd and unforeseen to happen. There are books waiting to be written, but I doubt very much if many readers would believe the stories that such volumes would contain. All the best, Pete

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