Sunday, December 24, 2017

The green, green gardens of Gerolstein

Why will the peacocks perch on our sign?
Its the morning of Christmas Day. Wendy is out paying visits to her family on the other side of town, Paulie is in Yamba, with the first slice of the Hankinson-Fahey Family, brother John is shivering in the northern wastes of Leicestershire, PGB doesn't arrive till New Year's Day. So there is just me, myself and I here at Gerolstein. Even the peacock clan seem to be respecting the fact, and have ceased their squalling momentarily ...

So I decided to go for a little Noellic stroll. in the company of my Yamba-Camera, around the gardens. I can't call them 'my' gardens for every single bit of care tendered them has been Wendy's work. So they are 'our' gardens, but they surround my house. There are more around Wendy's...!

I have been meaning to do this for some time. When, until recently, I travelled the world, and people were interested in the strangely-named Gerolstein, I discovered time and time again that mostly what I had to show them was pictures of horses, baby horses, horses running round the in-house racetrack, pictures of peacocks, cats or haymaking, rainbows or storms. And when I did take a straightforward shot of my bungalow, or Wendy's bungalow, it was always the same one.

So, here are the few snaps of what's outside my windows which I managed to take before the 30 degree heat drove me back indoors.

Out the bedroom doors .....

Past the peacock infirmary (he has his own deck-area)
On to the inner lawn (Wendy's house through the trees)
Down to the riverbank
The old orchard 
My favourite fern-garden under my bedroom window
View towards Wendy's gardens, prepped for summer planting
Everyone's got to have one. The Pump shed
Beyond lies the training track and the rest of our 35 acres
But we're not going there. My t-shirt is already soaked ... so back through the garden gate to the refrigerator...

When we first bought this place, seventeen years ago, I knew nothing about any sort of farming or country living. One day I saw a little seedling of that pretty silver penny gum. It was right in the horse paddock, so it was not going to live. I dug it up, and re-planted it up near the forest. Well, the forest is gone now: smashed down by the storms of several years ago, but my little tree, chewed by horses till it seemed a hopeless cause, is still there, all alone and grown ...

Then a couple of years ago we were given a walnut sprout. Hmm. With voracious peafowl stalking the lawns? But our little nut tree has survived and grown healthily in the garden above the river ...

'I had a little nut tree...'. I wonder if I will live to see this fellow bear fruit!

But most things prosper at Gerolstein.

The Greatest Christmas Carol of them all

Yesterday, I went to a Christmas concert given by New Zealand’s top singing entertainer and a children’s choir. I went to see the performers and the performance, and I knew full well that, from ‘Jingle Bells’ to ‘White Christmas’, I wasn’t going to hear any memorable music. But I did. It was a bit hidden away in a medley between some of the more ordinary kind of ‘carols’, but hearing it sung live made me remember what a perfectly splendid piece it is. And make me wonder why, as a child, I got to know ‘Jingle Bells’ and not this song. A Christmas Carol.

 Maybe it was because it is not English. Or even American. Even though, subsequently, it had both English and American-English words adapted to it. The ‘Cantique de Noel’, otherwise ‘Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle’, otherwise ‘Le Noël d’Adam’ was, and is, wholly French. Words by a provincial wine merchant, civic worthy and amateur poet, Monsieur Placide Cappeau of Roquemaure, near Avignon, and set to music by the composer Adolphe Adam, of Le Châlet, Le Postillon de Lonjumeau and Giselle fame.

The song was to become hugely famous through C19th France, sung at midnight masses in town and country for decades and described as ‘L’inusable’, ‘L’immortel’ (and eventually ‘inévitable’), ‘Hymne d'amour et d'espérance, c'est l'immortel Noël d'Adam qui s'élève, religieux et grave, dans la nuit ..’, Bientôt, de la partie qui sert de chœur, une voix s'élève et lance sous la voûte les couplets connus, mais toujours impressionnants du Noël d'Adam’. The Cantique quite simply became the festive prayer of the season, through France, and was even heard as far afield as Japan and China.

This amount of fame meant that, for many decades, a plethora of articles on ‘how the Noël d’Adam came to be written’ appeared in various newspapers and music magazines. In the 1920s and 1930s, the tales got more florid and more and more differing in their details and, depending which version modern writers have followed, those tales have come down to us as a choice of ‘facts’.

One ‘fact’ that doesn’t seem to have been agreed on is the date of the piece and of its first performance. Most pontificators say Christmas 1847, some opt for 1845, 1843 or even 1840. I thought 1847 was probably correct, until I came upon a notice for a concert given at London’s Hanover Square Rooms by the fine Parisian mezzo Mme Claire Hennelle in which it was reported ‘Among the pieces which she sang last night the most remarkable was a solemn strain which she delivered with much expression’ ‘accompanied by piano and orgue melodion’. Cantique de Noël by Adolphe Adam. Date? 22 June 1846.

Mme Henelle in London 1846

Well, I suppose this could have been a different Cantique de Noël … or the newspaper could be misdated … but I doubt it. Alas, not having the Avignonnaise newspapers of the day, I cannot tell. But, here she is again, 3 March 1847,t the Salle Pleyel with orgue-melodion singing Adam's Cantique to 'bravos enthousiastes'. Anyway, apart from the date, there are other points at question. I’m not going to list all the variations in the tale (some, including some 70-80 years later, have chunks of direct speech), but the principal players in the affair were the poet, the composer and a certain Émilie Laurey or Lauret, wife of a local bridge-builder and amateur vocalist. Supporting characters, the local mayor (?) Magnan, and the local priest.

And the story seems to have gone something vaguely like this. At a party chez M le maire, Mr Cappeau read some of his verses and Mme Laurey sang some songs, and someone suggested that the lady should sing a Noël at midnight mass. Mr Cappeau proffered his verses. And the music? Mme Laurey had been a pupil, at some stage, of Adam, and she wrote asking the ill and bankrupt musician to set the Roquemaurian lines. Adam swiftly did so, and received – so ‘history’ says – a fulsome response acclaiming it ‘a masterpiece’. The composer said in that case she had better send him a copy, because he hadn’t kept one.

This reeks a little bit of the tales of song-sketches thrown in the bin, rescued, and made into great hits. But be it true or not, Madame Laurey sang the Noël at midnight mass, it was much liked, Adam sent his manuscript to publisher Alexandre Grus, and the Cantique was on its way to celebrity. ‘La Marseillaise religieuse’.

The first newspaper report of a public (non-church) performance in France that I have found is when the operatic prima donna, Célestine Nathan-Treillet (a Jewish soprano for a Jewish composer!) gave the song at Nice in 1848, although doubtless Mme Hennelle was giving it in Paris. 

Célestine Nathan-Treillet

I see it sung, in the 1850s, by Achard, by Augusta Colas, Mme Lefebvure-Wely, Mlle Novara, Opéra tenor Antoine Renard and even Felice Varesi, but apparently it was the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure who made the biggest success with the piece, and young French baritones hurried to follow him. But the Cantique remained above all a feature of midnight masses, from Paris to Martinique to Indo-China.

Jean-Baptiste Faure

Beyond the French borders it was widely translated (Charles Lamb Kenney and George Linley in England, J S Dwight in Boston, Robert B Smith in New York) and published in all kinds of arrangements (the original was ‘score for voice and piano, parts for voice and orgue mélodium’), but ‘le plus célèbre des milliers de Noëls’ doesn’t show up that frequently on 19th century programmes. 

Its biggest British champion seems to have been George Risley, organist at Bristol’s Colston Hall, who programmed it regularly. That, however, was to change. The English-singing world might have preferred their own carols initially, but in the 20th and 21st centuries Adam’s tune would take its place alongside ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ‘The First Nowell’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ and their ilk in popularity, and top of the list of those singers who had sufficient voice to sing it. And those who didn't, 'arranged' it.

Aside. Adam died in 1856, Cappeau in 1879. Which meant that the copyright for the piece ran out in 1929. Thanks to Cappeau’s longevity, the Adam family had had 23 additional years of ‘melded copyright’ on the country’s favourite Christmas song, but Cappeau had not been a member of SACEM so all the royalties had been going to the Adam family. In 1920, Madame Marin-Cappeau went to law, and she won. She also apparently penned a revised version of the lyric. Which, of course, established another copyright.

An edition dedicated to the famous French baritone Jules Lefort

It was the time. In the 1920s and 1930s the piece finally became thoroughly internationally popular … now every opera singer who makes a ‘popular’ Christmas record includes a version of Noël d’Adam. By the way, it is apparently Dwight's English translation that seems to have become standard (‘O Holy night’) but I feel it is due for replacement!

The 20th century gave us such gemlets as ‘Petit Papa Noël’, ‘I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus’, ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, and ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth’ as seasonal songs, but we still have the beautiful ‘Minuit, chrétiens’ to remind us of a time when the 25th December had a religious significance … and big-name composers from Beethoven to Adam wrote seasonal music.

Post scriptum: to hear this wonderful piece (written for a soprano, popularised by a baritone) as-she-was-writ, listen to the delicious version of Georges Thill (tenor) on youtube.

Georges Thill

Friday, December 22, 2017


‘Santa Claus is coming to town…’. Yes, well, though I got on quite well with Santa some seventy years ago, I wouldn’t get off my backend these days to go all the way to town for him…

History relates I gave him a huge kiss and he was quite undone. At 3 years old already!

However, ‘Ali Harper is coming to town’ is something else. New Zealand’s National Treasure in little old Rangiora? Time to get out the little red car …

 A Christmas Joys concert. Omigod. I only know one quality Christmas song. And they’re sure to do the wretched Drummer Boy … but on the plus side, there’s the splendid Ali … so it’s a yes from me …

 Well, they did do the wretched Drummer Boy, but it was a largely enchanting two hours. La Belle Ali – looking and sounding more like Rosemary Clooney daily – sensibly didn’t attempt to carry the whole show on her dainty scarlet-clad shoulders. She had, as guest(s), the children’s group Voices Co and its creator and director Julian Hay, winners of TV’s Naked Choir contest. And the mixture was delightful.

I can’t say more about Ms Harper than I’ve said before. She is a consummate entertainer with an immaculate voice (she even sings ‘Vissi d’arte’ – admittedly transposed a tad – in her touring show). And she also arranges the shows that she presents, when she’s not starring in the theatre, with enormous taste and skill, and above all a knowledge of her audience. Today we started with ‘Jingle Bells’, rose to a Clooneyish ‘White Christmas’ then rose to the peak of Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noël (maybe the best Christmas song ever written) before getting everyone except me to join in another ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’. I couldn’t take part because the keys are not favourable to my tattered basso profondo!

So, Ms Harper, as usual 10 out of 10.

And the backing group? Well, I can quite well see and hear why they are winners. From the tiddliest laddie or the plumpest teen, I didn’t hear a single false note or a whiff of out-of-tunedness. Nor did they make that churchy sound favoured by English cathedrals and the Vienna Sängerknaben. They sang like children. Fresh, light and natural. And with head voice. They are probably too young to be allowed to watch the Z-Factor and Mr Hay will, in any case, stop them bawling above the stave. Young boys and girls, you were all grand, but the prize for the best voice production goes to the two littlest boys. Oscar and Ben. Wide open mouths, and in consequence a pinging sound which walloped me in Row Two deliciously. Soloists en herbe. Loved you.

Anyway, en somme, even if Christmas isn’t exactly my thing, I had a sweet afternoon … and Ali Harper, Voices Co and the glorious Cantique de Noël are an impeccable way to spend two hours which would have otherwise been spent delving into my Jewish ancestry …

God bless you, one and all.