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Sweet singing in the choir

The Tablet - Wed, Dec 21st 2011


Britain's economic woes are deepening, with 2.64 ­million people out of work this Christmas. In many high streets there has been little sign of festive cheer, with plenty of shops boarded up. Mary Portas, commissioned by the Prime Minister to study the retail habits of the nation of shopkeepers, reported this week that many of Britain's high streets are dull, uninspiring and stuck in the 1970s. In other words, they are strikingly old-fashioned.


But something else that is as much a part of the British Christmas as a trip to the shops is booming, precisely because it is strikingly old-fashioned. The carol concert has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, in both concert halls and cathedrals, as well as local parish churches. A survey by The Tablet, reported on page 50, reveals that many people are finding solace in carol services at a time of economic despondency. For, to paraphrase Newman, they point to the kindly light amid the encircling gloom. 


Atheist intellectuals will no doubt traduce the singing of carols as an exercise in mawkish sentimentality. That is ­missing the point. For it is not just the appreciation of others' singing that marks out enthusiasm for carol concerts this year; it is a desire to participate, whether in a choir or as part of the audience or congregation. Choral singing has become one of the nation's most popular pastimes. Much of its current popularity is due to Gareth Malone, the choirmaster who has inspired diffident schoolboys, recalcitrant teenagers and now traumatised soldiers' wives to join forces to sing. 


All the television series that have featured his work have shown him helping discover depths of sound and emotion that the participants would never have thought possible. They have also discovered that choral singing is the exact opposite of shopping to excess: it is a work of mutual support and companionship. Recent psychological research into singing has revealed that it enhances well-being, particularly among those with physical and mental health problems, family difficulties and suffering bereavement. It encourages a sense of personal worth and develops concentration. 


When Mr Malone was once asked what it is that makes the experience of choral music intensely moving, his answer went beyond issues of individual self-esteem and ventured into the communal and the spiritual. It was the feeling that everyone had come together and was united, he said. That powerful, spiritual experience is one which Christians will recognise as something they gain from congregating for Holy Communion but it is particularly enhanced by sharing in songs of worship. This year, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have looked to the laity to invite those who have been away from the Church to return, particularly at Christmas and no matter how long the absence. 


The celebration of the Incarnation is an opportunity to be, as Pope Benedict puts it, "vigilant in prayer and exultant in praise". Joining with others to sing carols such as Christina Rossetti's "In The Bleak Midwinter", with its final verse asking: "What can I give Him?", and its answering refrain: "Give my heart", is a moment for conversion, whether novice, regular churchgoer or a returner to the fold, and a reminder of the invitation to love which the Christ Child brought to the world.

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