By Gaby Roughneen
The birds in the trees would have been the only ones to see the full picture of our village Corpus Christi procession. They would have seen and heard this wavering ribbon as it wound through the village streets, with its bands of colour – the First Communion class in white and neat little suits, the Children of Mary in blue cloaks and white veils, the Girl Guides in brown uniforms, the nuns in white cloaks over black habits, the LDF in grey/ green uniforms, the clergy in black and white, and everyone else in Sunday best.
But the birds might have been a bit critical as they listened to the music that arose from this crowd. It began at the front when the choir leader led an unaccompanied hymn. It was robust at first, but as it travelled down the line, it was picked up at different speeds, volumes and pitches, so by the time the people at the back sang verse one, the crowd at front were on verse three.
What the birds might not have known, though, was that however strange the sounds might have been, the undulating ribbon of music had a way of linking village groups together, at least for an afternoon.
It was a bit sad that most of the hymns sung on this early summer day were joyless, and coated in the guilt of sinners. There was only one that was happy – ‘Bring Flowers of the Fairest’ and the melody was so lovely it made me want to step out of my line and twirl into a bit of a dance on the road. The hymn also said
‘Sing gaily in chorus, the bright angels oe’er us
Re-echo the strains we begin upon earth.’
And I hope that those snooty birds took note of our angelic connections.
The ribbon of music touched almost every part of village life and in a deeply Catholic little place it was inevitable that much of it would be liturgical.
In our singing class at school we worked hard to get it right. We sang in the church gallery marking the passages of life and death and the flow of the liturgical year.
The hours of practising after school could be dreary, but the ethereal Gregorian chant took on a life of its own in church. It seemed to blend in not just with the liturgy, but with people and even the old building.
Although we didn’t appreciate it then, it was enriching to be part of the physical and spiritual expression of some profound moments.
Given the negative spirituality of the time, most hymns were about guilt, death and pleas for mercy. So, once November had passed, we looked forward to the music of Christmas. The carols were pure joy, all connected with God’s love for humanity. They carried an atmosphere that was infectious.
People, even the cranky ones, wished one another a happy Christmas on the street, in the village shops, and on the bus into town. The very air that we breathed seemed to be different.
When the carol singers came around and sang in the cold night air about the joy that had touched creation, it was as if that joy was brought right onto our street by the music, and into our house, and that it included presents, decorations and good times.
For once, the dark side of our nature that we were reminded of continuously, seemed to be forgotten. Although I couldn’t articulate it back then, what I felt was that we really were created for joy.
A lot of the music that was played in our house was classical because my parents loved it. My father bought a ‘pick-up’, a record player that held a stack of records and dropped them for playing in sequence while we listened, fascinated.
He liked to load it up when everyone had gone to bed, so that Chopin’s nocturnes, Moonlight Sonata, and opera choruses floated up the stairs as we went to sleep.
But for me, there was a knot in this ribbon of music. My father had a record which he loved, on a long loan. It was Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ in which a choir slid down the scale in a teeth-hurting run of sharps and flats during the Dies Irae, followed by a booming baritone who let it rip about death and damnation.
My father said that this was God on Judgement Day, telling sinners to go to hell. I hated it. I buried my head when it played at night.
However, relief was unexpectedly in sight. I went into the empty sitting room one evening and flopped into an armchair. There was a sharp crack. I jumped up, and on the seat lay a smashed record. It was Verdi’s ‘Requiem’.
Shaking, I took the record pieces to my father, but he was surprisingly understanding about the accident. (I suspect it was because he’d left the record in the armchair instead of putting it back on the shelf as he always told us to do).
So I didn’t feel a tráithnín of guilt about it. In fact, now that Verdi’s grim liturgical knot was gone from our flowing ribbon of music, my secret feeling was that if ever a record needed to be sat on and smashed, that was the one.
Give me ‘Bring Flowers of the Fairest’ any day!