One of my sisters told me that she had joined a local choir – despite the fact that she is not a trained singer. She has always been one for breaking out into unselfconscious, cheerful-sounding harmony whenever the mood takes her, even though her competence owes more to enthusiasm than to natural ability. Of course I showed my support and applauded her brave adoption of such a creative pursuit. I thought no more of it until several months later when she announced that her choir was to give a public concert. “That’s great! Where will it be?” I enquired, dutifully sustaining my interest. “Oh, just at the local church. We’re not very good.” Amateur choirs and local churches do not have a glamorous image and, without a good PR company behind them, are always going to be a difficult sell. Fortunately for her I am a fond brother who had already declared interest and, as such, was a sucker for a couple of tickets. “That would be nice” she said “But don’t feel you have to”. “I will be there” I insisted. “Ah thanks - but don’t expect too much. We’re not very good” she insisted in return.
The venue is in her village, Tattershall, which lies in deepest, flattest Lincolnshire. It is utterly unremarkable on drive-through acquaintance but, hidden from view, just off its main road, stands England’s largest parish church, the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity - her ‘local church’. It is ancient and awe-inspiring in its beauty, grace and grandeur. And that’s not all. It is related to another mid-15th century building a few yards away, the 130 feet-high tower of Tattershall castle, a spectacular monument to the moneyed power of the time. In short, our choir of brave amateurs was about to strut its stuff in middle England’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey with the Tower of London shifted next door. As well as that they had the undaunted temerity to perform an ambitious programme: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (concert version) and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria.
It is true to say that I have heard more accomplished performances of both works; but let this pass as a technical quibble. The concurrence of the music, the spirit in which it was delivered, the magnificence of the building and the reverberations with history came together as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved by ‘ordinary people’. Amidst the mundaneness of everyday life they had tapped into the deep roots of shared culture which are still there for all to savour. This was more than just a concert; it was a testament to the lingering power of cultural heritage.
The experience was marred only by the woeful lack of numbers in the audience - which leads to speculation about the frailty of such events. When Ralph, the 3rd Baron Cromwell, built the castle and the church he was Lord Treasurer of England. Some of that ‘treasure’ must have found its way into his personal account for the building of monuments to the glory of his god (and to himself). Now that he’s gone, however, the cost of maintenance falls heavily upon the small community. Yet, just two fields away, there is an RAF base which is home to some of the world’s most advanced jet fighter aircraft. The wealth of the nation is spent there in unimaginable billions of pounds. Standing in the grounds, watching the jets fly over, it is possible to imagine them destroying both these ancient buildings in a matter of minutes. The contrast is extreme: on the one hand no expense is spared to exert military might while, on the other, our cultural heritage clings on by a thin thread of charitable donations.
Some of the choristers were participating out of sheer passion for music, some for more social motives; but all of them, whether or not they were aware of it, were adding their particular layer to the precious patina of our social and cultural history. They have vision, talent and chutzpah – but they could really use a good PR company.