It’s that season again. I can tell by social media that some of you started decorating on Labor Day weekend while others have shown more restraint. One reveler I know at least waited until mid-September to set up her newly purchased tree. I made no comment (where she could hear), but I believe she kept everyone out of her house until Thanksgiving night when she revealed it.
I’ve been known to make a little holiday effort myself, but some years have been more challenging than others. If nothing spoils the mood, you’re apt to find every surface of the house covered in something celebratory. What could spoil the mood, you ask? During the retail employment years of my life, any number of things could set me off. It’s best not to take a peek behind that curtain.
For this blog, I haven’t written much, if anything, about my years as a church organist. Yes, once upon a time I was one of those maniacal manipulator of stops and keys; a special kind of control freak that can bring on waves of tearful sentimentality by simply pulling out the celeste stop. I can also pile on reeds and mixtures to drown out the disrespectful chatter of a cluster of parishioners who think they have something more important to say when it’s my turn to be heard.
One particular organist position was a misery unlike any other. The congregation was grand, and I was given artistic freedom. The only things not musically under my control were the choir, its director, and his wives. Yes, I wrote wives. He wasn’t a polygamist, but a serial monogamist. I didn’t have to deal with a harem all at one time, but I might as well have when it came to Christmas and Easter. The director seemed to have exhausted the last of his choral creativity, but his wife was brimming with ideas. A regular Oracle of Delphi, she could dream dreams, alter the course of events, and screw up men’s minds when she dug in.
I could feel my nausea setting in by late August because I knew enough about Madam and her machinations. She had more climbing skills than a mountain goat, and manipulated less astute church members like Frank Underwood on House of Cards. When she returned from her honeymoon, she officially switched denominations and rose rapidly in church leadership. She knocked the music committee chair off the throne and grabbed the orb and scepter before they hit the ground. We walked into the next meeting, and she had recruited enough new committee members to back her agenda, which was to replace dignity with chaos.
The choir would no longer be doing Lessons and Carols. My repertoire would no longer be required. I was to be set free from an autumn of holiday music preparation because Madam had selected a musical! She insisted that it wouldn’t sound right accompanied by a three-manual (keyboard) organ. Her idea required an orchestra. It didn’t matter that we had no budget to pay for an orchestra or square footage to seat them. You see, all she had to do was buy a soundtrack, and our 22 mostly amateur voices would magically sound like one of those “fancy choirs” one can pull up on YouTube. “Patrick, we only need you for Wednesday and an extra two-hour rehearsal each Saturday to hammer out the voice parts. Oh, and if you could go ahead and learn the full ninety-page score and set aside some time each week to practice with the eight soloists, that would be great!” So much for my fall freedom.
You just know I wasn’t very nice about this to anyone who would listen. There would be NO holiday decorations at my house that year. I wouldn’t even turn on a porch light as I contemplated my revenge in the dark. Who was this low country contralto who’d swept into our musical lives like a demon in search of a soul to possess? I phoned the senior minister who said that it was too late for any type of containment. We were well beyond a simple musical. “Patrick, it’s being staged… with costumes.” They heard me screaming across three counties.
Just exactly how was this banshee going to transform the interior of a dark-paneled gothic church with an acre of stained glass into her Space Odyssey vision of Heaven? Based on her recent behavior, I had my doubts that she’d ever be allowed to see the real Heaven much less design one within our building’s confines. Her cumulus concept was to be populated by 22 amateur elderly angels who could no longer walk and sing at the same time. They’d never be able to perform “off book,” find their marks, and hit their notes.
When word got out that Madam was “producing” the Christmas musical, five soloists dropped out on the spot. One of the remaining soloists, the best soprano in town, was going to have to take on triple duty, but Madam’s ego couldn’t deal with a better singer getting more solos. Two weeks before performance, she reassigned the parts, which left the best singer with one solo and, you guessed it, Madam doing all the rest of the women’s parts in a lower register since you can’t change the key of a pre-recorded soundtrack.
11 days prior to the big day, we were informed that dress rehearsal would take place on the eve of the performance. “We’re going to start at exactly 8:00 on Saturday morning. Plan to stay until 4:00 that afternoon!” Such hours are fine if you’re running through a Wagnerian opera, but for a 55-minute cantata this was a sure sign of trouble.
I had the feeling we were headed in this direction because I was still being called upon to hammer out the parts for those who were having difficulty with harmonies and rhythms. With the exception of the remaining soloists, that meant the rest of the choir. Madam was still determined to stage the production, and had even added a few speaking lines here and there, as if the performers didn’t have enough trouble with the music while trying to find their marks on the cotton batting that kept slipping all over the floor. There were rumors of a forthcoming fog machine, and I could only hope that everyone’s Medicare co-pay was up to date.
It was time to pray for a Christmas miracle. Madam’s supplication was that her cast and crew would somehow fall into place and replicate the skills of a Tony-winning Broadway production. The soloists prayed that they didn’t cross paths with ill people coughing and sneezing in their direction, and I petitioned for a drastic change in the Jetstream to blanket the city in ice long enough for Madam to abandon her folly.
The true miracle came from Mother Superior. That was the sobriquet of Valera Thurgood Harper, our stereotypical church lady. Every parish has one. You know, graduated two years after Jesus, and has thought of nothing for centuries but how to control the institutions, the traditions, and the long string of clergy that have stumbled into her lair. My initial run-in with Valera was the first day on the job. During my interview, I’d been shown where my office was to be. When I arrived, this resolute character informed me that no such room existed. The chamber was hers – note the handwritten nameplate next to the entrance – as she required a place to conduct her business as church historian, Sunday school recording secretary, and budget chairlady. (She was not a chairperson, she insisted, because she learned English grammar before that “Steinem woman stirred things up!”)
Mother Superior had first attempted to dissuade Madam by pointing out that the rood screens and mahogany pulpit were part of the building’s structure and couldn’t be moved without the strength and authority of the actual archangel that rolled away the stone from Christ’s tomb. Madam took the edict of immovable altar furnishings in her stride and announced that they could be covered in a few more bolts of cotton batting. “Perhaps the kind with glitter in it to reflect the light, and maybe some plastic snow!” Frosted white helium balloons could also provide a sense of floating, and that meant renting a tank.
When two totalitarian super-powers clash, people take cover. Some of us like to peek out and see whether the ancient foundations can withstand the onslaught or whether the trifling upstart regime can gain an advantage. Mother Superior was not the fainting type. That’s why she’d reached the pinnacle of parishioner power. She firmly explained to Madam that collections were down, and that there would be no discretional spending before the new year. Besides, balloons were akin to sacrilege, and the use of glitter could cost the offender his baptismal certificate and anything else to bar entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Undaunted, Madam hastily enlisted two altos and discussed the possibility of special donations to pay for the set. The ex-chair of the music committee got wind and, still smarting from the coup, informed Mother Superior of brewing trouble. Dress rehearsal was cancelled, and Heaven on Earth remained as illusive as ever as the musical would now become a no-frills event.
On performance day, the soundtrack blared over the ancient public address system as the choir remained in its normal place on the chancel. The only point that Madam was unwilling to concede was that the singers remain dressed as angels. The poor soloists even had to wear halos fashioned from stiff wire and tinsel that wobbled precariously as they belted their parts above the overpowering accompaniment.
The Christmas Pageant of 19— was but the first battle of a four-year war filled with intrigue, espionage, and other un-churchly activities. There was never an armistice; peace was unattainable until the choir director’s next wife arrived. She couldn’t care less about music. Her zeal was foreign missions. I liked her very much.
© 2019 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1