Wednesday 22 September 2010

Ushaw and The Sound of Music (posted 8/04/2010)

When I went to Ushaw College in 1946, at the age of 11, I already knew the Benediction hymns and some of the more common hymns to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady.  My parents always took me and my brother to Rosary, Sermon and Benediction on Sundays and to Rosary and Benediction on Thursdays; we also attended Sunday School and Benediction.  And this even during the War!  Sometimes the service was in the dark apart from the candles on the altar, because of the need to protect the blackout in case German bombers targeted our church - the worst damage we suffered in our part of Gateshead was shrapnel damage to roofs caused by the Ack-Ack battery stationed on the other side of the valley - after a raid on Tyneside we would go into the street and pick up pieces of shrapnel as souvenirs!  When the air-raid sirens sounded, my brother and I were parked in the cupboard under the stairs, while my Mam and Dad stayed in the sitting-room: the Anderson shelter in the backyard was too cold and uncomfortable!
Anyway, back to Ushaw.
Singing was always a part of the Ushaw experience.  When I was in he Junior House, I remember on dull, rainy days when we were unable to go outside to play football, one of the professors would gather us together in one of the classrooms and teach us to sing old favourites, like 'Roll out the Barrel', or 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', and others too - just to keep us amused, and with something to do!
But even from the beginning of Ushaw training, the main singing effort was for singing in Church.  Every Sunday we had a Solemn High Mass, and we youngsters were marched across to the Saint Cuthbert's Chapel to join the rest of the College for the Mass.  In the Chapel, the front benches where we young ones used to sit and kneel have now been removed; for fairly obvious reasons they were called 'the canary benches'.
It was when my year moved into the College proper from the Junior House that Father (ie Mister) Hollis, the choirmaster, began to recruit the sopranos for the College choir.  I was accepted into the college choir as a treble; I passed the test because I was able to sing each note which he randomly played on a piano!  Apart from that I knew nothing, and had to learn from scratch all the Masses and motets and how to follow the beat - indeed how to open and hold the music copies.  There were some beautiful voices amongst the tenors and basses.  We trebles and altos weren't too bad either.  Each Sunday we sang the common parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, and so on) whilst the whole College sang the proper parts (Introit, Gradual, etc) in Plain Chant.  The most exciting times for us singers was the Christmas Midnight Mass and the responses during the singing of the Passions on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  We always sang a Mass by Palestrina for Christmas Midnight, and the opening of the Kyrie was just magic and the best treble sang the first verse of the 'Adeste fidelis' solo.  I can still hear echoes of the responses from the Passion whenever I say those words in the Breviary.  When my voice broke, of course, I was dropped from the choir, and I never made it back into the choir later as a tenor.
All the same, the plain chant singing was just as important, and we had to practice twice a week to learn the chants for the following Sunday.  From time to time, the College did a broadcast for the BBC.  I remember preparations for one broadcast, when Father Agnellus Andrews, OFM, who was the BBC's Catholic religious advisor, came to Ushaw to compere.  He was absolutely horrified when, during the practice, we all stood up from a kneeling position: there was a thunderous crash!  Each student knelt on an individual wooden kneeler, which we kicked forward into the back of the bench in front when we stood up; we students were so used to the noise that we didn't notice it.  Father Agnellus however was not impressed; he said the the listeners would think a bomb had gone off!  We spent some time practising to stand up without making a sound, until he was satisfied.  The programme, probably Vespers, went ahead without any further problems.
There were also musical productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  The first one I can remember was The Mikado.  Brilliantly adapted by one of the professors, all the female parts became male (Three Little Maids from School are we became Three Little Boys ....). No doubt this made a considerable difference to the story, but it all worked out some how.  I can remember that we also did the Pirates of Penzance, and no doubt some of the others.  Later in my life at Ushaw I started to learn the viola and scraped along to various musical epics - fortunately the viola was not a very important instrument in our orchestra, being mainly an eeh/awe accompaniment, so I do not think that I did any real harm!  We gave an occasional concert for the whole College; some of our leading players were very good.
We also had sing-along evenings in our Playrooms (common rooms).  I became adept at singing Geordie songs, and developing a strong Geordie accent.  (For the benefit of any who do not understand, Geordie is the dialect of those who are born within sight of the River Tyne, as I was - I remember once reciting the Geordie epic, 'Moses and the Children of Israel', to an audience at a walking centre - everyone was in fits of laughter, but I overheard someone afterwards admitting that she had no idea what I was talking about!).
In my time at Ushaw, everyone at some time got to sing some thing, Epistles, Gospels, Lessons at matins, especially as we progressed to the later stages; some of the singers were absolute rubbish and couldn't sing a note, others were lovely singers, most fell in between. But we all had to sing.  And of course, as we sang as students, so we sing as priests!

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