Music for Monks?

A concert in the cellarium of Fountains Abbey last Saturday.

Pitch black, cold.

The singers gather,

muffled up.

Sing loudly, like long-gone monks -

conquering the dark.

And to lower the tone, that’s the scene once the audience had departed.

For Bren’s Mid-Week Monochrome.


Just two stories from Ukraine

Back in March, I brought a daily diary, by Yevgenia Belorusets from Kyiv to your attention.  It went silent nearly two weeks ago.  But news from Ukraine is unremitting, and none of it good. 

I thought it would be good to remember that Ukrainians are so much more than victims, and fighters for their country.  They have towns, cities and countryside that are important to them.  They have a cultural life that mustn’t be extinguished.  Here are two stories to remind us of that.  The first is from the Guardian’s Country Diary last week.  Here, Olexandr Ruchko describes the annual arrival of the storks to his homeland.

This stork is in Spain.  But his cousins are now in Ukraine.

The next is about a children’s choir, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir, Kyiv.

Do have a look at their website, and listen to the two pieces you’ll find there.  They’d like you to share this site, and share it again, so their music continues to live on, even though the choir members are scattered:

Many of you, by ‘liking’ a previous post, enabled me to give a donation to World Central Kitchens, which works in Ukraine and disaster zones throughout the world. Here‘s a link, in case you too are interested in donating.

My header image recalls the Ukrainian flag.  Though this image was taken in North Yorkshire, it reminds us that Ukraine is, in normal times, the Breadbasket of Europe.

As it happens, Brian Butler, in his engaging Travel Between the Pages blog, features today a short video of Kyiv, as it experienced a normal day, only last summer. You can view it here.

‘Let us Sing in Celebration of a Union Proud and Free’

On Saturday, about a million of us descended on London, all committed Remainers, demanding a Final Say on the Brexit Deal, which even as we marched was being debated in Parliament with as much dissent as usual.

Our own little patch of Yorkshire sent three coaches.  Nineteen coaches from Yorkshire altogether. Everyone had their own important reasons for being there.

But the Yorkshire Remain Voice Choir had come to sing. We had permission to commandeer Wellington Place, right next to Trafalgar Square, and sing below the Duke of York Monument. And that’s what we did. 

We’d come into being about two years ago in two ways. Over in York for Europe, Martin and Gill were crafting clever lyrics with a view to starting a Remainers’ choir.  And in North Yorkshire we began to sing at our street stalls.  Arnold conducted a few singers, a tuba, and a guitar. Small beginnings …. but now it’s county-wide, with members from Settle to Sheffield – almost 80 miles apart. Dozens play their parts.  Composing lyrics; practising; arranging; securing singing spots; keeping song books up to date; booking coaches. 

We have SODEM’s support in London, and an official photographer in Bedford-based Chiara Mc Call. We’ve sung all over Yorkshire, in London, even (thanks to Louise in South Yorkshire) in Brussels. Whenever the going’s got tough, we’ve had North Yorkshire’s Richard S’s boundless enthusiasm and hard work to keep us going.  These days, apart from the original small team, we have a Yorkshire band’s worth of brass, and drums and various stringed instruments.

In London on Saturday, we had a large and pretty much captive audience.  Slow-motion marchers inevitably listened – enthusiastically – as they passed. Many stopped off specially to listen, applaud and join in too. Demonic Cummings and Boris Johnson, those two splendid images fresh over from Germany, unsurprisingly pushed off towards Trafalgar Square as we began.


Our audience, viewed from the choir (CM)

There are thirty eight songs in our repertoire – all, with one exception, pastiches of well-known numbers.  Our signature number is of course:

‘We’ve come from Yorkshire just to say (just to say)

Your Brexit deal is naff…‘(to the tune of ‘On Ilkley Moor’, naturally).

But we can do other folk songs:

‘What shall we do with….‘, not a ‘Drunken Sailor’, but ‘this Rotten Brexit?’

…..drinking songs: ‘I’ve been a Remainer for many’s the year’ rather than the more traditional ‘Wild Rover’.

We can do Old Time Musical: ‘I’m forever European’ (‘I’m forever Blowing Bubbles’).

Radio Two standards such as ‘Delilah’ ask:

‘Why why why deceive us?

More lies won’t appease us’.

We can reference American traditions:

‘We’ve had quite enough of Brexit it’s a con’.  (‘She’ll be coming round the Mountain’)

While ‘The Battle Hymn to the Republic’ becomes ‘Our eyes have seen the threat to all the freedoms we hold dear’.

Hymns too …. ‘Bread of Heaven’, and the Last Night of the Proms (‘Land of Hopeless Tories  ‘).

There’s one song in our repertoire that’s not original: ‘Ode to Joy’. It moves many of us to tears every time we sing it. 


Brexit or no Brexit (no Brexit please!) we’d like to continue.  A pro-Europe Choir and Band for Europe?


Photos and videos labelled ‘CM’ are by our wonderful friend and supporter Chiara McCall. Follow her on Instagram @chichi76.myreflection


May Day

I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK.  Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.

When we lived in France it was far more important.  It was a day off work of course, because it was the all important Fête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours).  No garages. No newspapers.  Only essential workers turned up for duty.

But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I used to ask people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knew.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Lilies of the Valley in our garden in France, one rainy May Day.

Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day:  here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date.  And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.

The pirates return

It’s time to leave Phil Sayer in peace. My daughter gave him a glorious send-off last Monday, with a funeral attended by nearly 400 people, celebrating his life with tears certainly, but also, nostalgia, humour and even laugh-out-loud moments. When were you last at a funeral which began with Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’? Just before we try to resume normal service, here’s a post I wrote two years ago, celebrating Phil’s time on the pirate ship Radio Caroline.

Rest in peace, Phil.

From Pyrenees to Pennines

Alex and Ben rush down the gangplank of the pirate ship. Alex and Ben rush down the gangplank of the pirate ship.

This post probably won’t make much sense if you’re not from the UK.  It won’t make sense even if you’re British if you’re not at least in your mid- 50’s.  You won’t know of a world where your radio listening choices were limited to the Home Service (much like Radio 4), the Light Programme (much like  Radio 2) and the Third Programme ( much like…. yes, Radio 3).  What’s missing from this list?  Yes, indeed, Radio One.

If you were a teenager before the mid 1960s, you weren’t going to get much joy listening out for a diet of pop music by choosing the BBC.  The only option was to tune in to the commercial Radio Luxembourg.  The amount of music it offered grew rapidly throughout the ’60s, but anyone from my generation will remember the commercials too…

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‘Tuesday’s Tune’

Soon after I started writing my blog, I realised that some of the people reading my posts were … other bloggers.  They comment on my posts, and I on theirs.  It’s a novel kind of ‘friendship’.  We’re unlikely ever to meet, and yet we come to know one another (or those bits of ourselves we’re willing to share in print) quite well.  We like and support one another.  Not for us the mean-spirited and negative comments that seem to be a feature of the comment columns on many national newspapers, thank you very much.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that these blogging friends live all over the world: in Canada, in America, in France, in Germany.  And this week, one of those blogging friends, Clay Watkins: Making the Days Count has asked me to contribute a guest post to his blog.

Clay is a teacher.  He’s the teacher you wish you’d had at school: keen to make his students enthusiastic for the project in hand.  Whether it’s looking at the skies, or the aftermath of the Second World War, or the principles of physics, Clay wants you to be curious, so you do your very best.  He likes music too, and so once a week on his blog, it’s ‘Tuesday’s tune’.  Have a look here, and see what I chose to write about on his blog.

‘I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.’ *

Thursday evening.  Choir.  Arrive early in time for a quick chat and a gossip, and then settle down to work.

The mood’s established from the first note.  Our voices chase up and down the scales in a series of jolly rounds, verses and tongue-twisters as we warm up our voices and then it’s down to work on the repertoire.  Vanessa, who squeezes pretty good music out of a very mixed bunch of singers, keeps us busy, committed and enthusiastic.  We love her.

It’s all so different from the choral society I belonged to in England.  There, the repertoire was the attraction.  Haydn’s ‘Creation’, Charpentier’s ‘Te Deum and all those stirring sacred Masses.  I liked my fellow choristers too.  Really though, I felt like Groucho Marx.  I didn’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.  I was never quite confident in what I was singing.  I was always running from behind and rarely had the confidence to sing my heart out.

But the repertoire held me in thrall, and so when I arrived in France, I looked for more of the same.  And didn’t find it.  I guessed the Departmental Choir was beyond my reach.  I took me ages to realise that most villages and small towns, even Laroque, do indeed have a choir, and even longer not to feel sniffy at what I then considered an irredeemably low-brow  programme.

More fool me.  Since I gave in and joined in I’ve had the best fun.  Thursday nights when we have our rehearsals are simply unmissable.  We sing a bit of everything: Henry VIII’s ‘Pastime with good company’ (en français naturallement); ‘Amezzing Gress’ (en American, off coss), some sacred stand-bys; Breton or Auvergnat folk songs: the odd sortie to Russia – but the general feel is vairy Frainch, often with songs to which everybody but me already knows the words.  I soon catch up though.  I have to.

We’ll have concerts in the communities nearby.  And every now and then, as last week, there‘ll be a ‘Rencontre de Chorales’, when a number of choirs from a wide area gather together for the afternoon and invite the general public in for a feast of singing.  Each choir sings about 6 numbers from their repertoire, catering to every possible musical taste. And we all sit together in our concert get-up, sympathising with mistakes, applauding great performances until our own turn comes. At the end, every chorister from every choir will somehow squeeze onto the stage to join in the ‘chanson en commun’.  The audience enjoy it, but it’s even more fun for we singers to join together, united by our love of singing.  As we all suggested last week at the tops of our voices, ‘C’est magnifique’

Far too busy getting to know each other and renew old friendships to start singing yet
Far too busy getting to know each other and renew old friendships to start singing yet
There we are, members of 5 different choirs, all in our different concert gear, squeezing together to begin singing.  That's me in the middle, in blue.
There we are, members of 5 different choirs, all in our different concert gear, squeezing together to begin singing. That’s me in the middle, in blue.

* William James

Entendre cordiale: Blue Lake again

It’s been Blue Lake time again: that time of year when for 3 years now, we at Laroque have come to expect great entertainment from the musicians of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan, USA, as well as some music from our own LDO Big Band.

This year, we welcomed a slightly different group from previous years – the International Jazz Band.  Mostly still in their teens, these players have been selected for the European tour not only because they’re good at what they do, but they’re hungry to become even better.  They want to seize the opportunity to spend time in cultures other than their own, and to perform in locations throughout parts of Europe, from prestigious concert halls and cathedrals, to smaller town venues like ours.

At the end of last night’s concert, the band’s conductor and group director Bill MacFarlin, spoke of how these chances for young Americans to travel and make music was a real opportunity to foster international friendship and understanding.

We’ve been watching that at work over the last 3 days.  The Blue Lake team, 17 of them, arrived in sunshine to a big welcome group in the Municipal Park.

Our School of Music’s housed here in the château. I took this shot just before everyone arrived

The event went well, but it was easy to see the Americans and French weren’t mixing much – it was too hard to communicate: Malcolm’s and my interpreting skills were much in demand (Not that we’re much good.  I listened to our French head honcho, Michel Alvarez, and carefully interpreted it to Bill McFarlin.  Bill raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you realise’, he said ‘that you’ve just said all that entirely in French?’).

A giraffe of beer

Later, down at the bar with older students and members of LDO Big Band it got a lot easier.  The giraffe of beer may have helped.

Lucas Munce – with a clarinet this time

It was next day that real change took place. First of all, there was a Master Class, with Lucas Munce, acclaimed as a saxophonist back in the US (AND for his clarinet and flute  playing too), and Parker Grant, a young jazz pianist also gaining recognition.  After a slow start, the need to exchange musical knowledge overcame shyness and the language barrier.

Then after a shared meal it was time to rehearse.  Towards the end of the evening, members of the French and American bands sat together to practise the pieces they planned to play together to conclude Fridays’ concert.  It was wonderful to witness them, heads together as they pored over their shared scores, animatedly and enthusiastically discussing  their music.  Their mutual comprehension of each other’s tongues seemed to have moved up a gear, but above all they now had a shared language – music.

Blue lake International Jazz Band and LDO Big Band at rehearsal

By the time Friday’s concert came, these musicians were friends.  They greeted each other affectionately and settled down to listen to each other’s performances with relish.  When they had to squeeze themselves together for those final numbers, placing themselves alternately American/French, they were confident to give the music their all.  They loved it.  The audience loved it.

Blue Lake and LDO saxophonists share the moment at Friday’s concert

At the moment of parting, there were hugs and all round and quite a few sniffles too.  As ambassadors for their country, Blue Lake do a pretty fine job.

Rencontre des chorales

Our Chorale at Laroque’s best friend is the Chorale at Mirepoix.  The Écoles de Musique in each town are best friends too, working together and running some joint classes and performances.

The chorales and other classes get together at least once every season to enjoy singing and playing for and with each other for an evening.  The public’s invited, and comes in encouragingly large numbers.

Those cannelés….

Last Friday, all the singers started wandering in shortly after 6, carrying carefully prepared dishes of buffet food.  The instructions were to bring no more than 6 portions, but nobody took any notice of that.  Robert from Laroque had made a pile of his deliciously chewy signature cannelés, Mirepoix’s William (yup, William’s a perfectly good French name) produced meringues, Mercedes’ plate was full of the cold meats and pâtés they make their charcuterie….and so on.

The rehearsal started, and was less a question of running through the songs than organising the logistics of moving around the dozens of us involved: Mirepoix’s orchestra, their children’s choir, the adult choirs from both towns.  It had to be done to a time-table, because nobody wanted to hurry over eating that buffet or sinking some wine.  ‘Don’t drink too much alcohol beforehand!’ urged Vanessa, our director ‘It’s bad for your singing voice’. I didn’t see anyone taking very much notice. ’Well really’, said Robert ‘How can you possibly eat cheese without a glass of wine to help it down?’

It had been more than 30 degrees for much of the day, so nobody wanted to come back indoors after the meal.  But we opened the windows, finished our preparations, and the audience drifted in for….oh, well before 9.10 for a 9.00 start.

Almost ready to start

The orchestra started things off.  Lots of percussion. All good stuff. I’m always a soft touch for children singing: these were well-rehearsed and sang with verve and enthusiasm.  Joined by the Mirepoix adult choir, they belted out numbers that were old favourites to the French audience and unknown to Malcolm and me.

And then it was our turn.  Our repertoire is a catholic one.  We sang everything from Henry VIII’s Pastime with Good Company (en français bien sûr) and Moon River (en français bien sûr) to old favourites (if you’re French that is) like Mon Amant de Saint Jean.

The Chorale de Laroque d’Olmes takes the stage

Nearly the end. Time for all the singers to join together for two final numbers.  A few weeks ago, Mireille had spent half an afternoon explaining one of them, Mistral Gagnant, to me.  It features a man singing to his daughter and the allusions to a host of sweets that form no part of my own youth – carambars, minthos and the mistrals gagnants themselves, had left me totally baffled, though not the rest of the audience.

In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave without doing an encore or two.  In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave – nobody could – without sharing the pot d’amitié.  A glass of something, a chance to meet and talk to friends: the perfect way to end a busy evening

From the northern US to southern France: Blue Lake International Jazz Band

If you’re young, American, and living in Michigan, and if you like performing, you may be lucky enough to spend part of your summer at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, a summer school of the arts located on a 1300 acre campus in the Manistee National Forest.  If you’re really talented and work hard, you may one year be selected for one of the 8 or so ensembles that have been coming over for a European tour every year since 1969.

And if you live in Europe, you may be lucky enough to live in one of those towns that welcome these young people. Here at Laroque, we’re among those fortunate people.

The Blue Lake Jazz Ensemble first came here 2 years ago. Their director, David Jensen, and the leader of our own LDO Big Band, Michel Alvarez, hit it off.  So when plans for this year were under way, both men were keen to see Laroque included in the itinerary.

But what an itinerary!  The band landed in Paris on 17th June.  From Elbeuf in Normandy, they passed through Belgium to reach Germany, Denmark, Germany again, then Austria.  Then they travelled 1588 km to reach Laroque d’Olmes, a coach journey that took a whole 24 hours.  After staying with us, they were due to travel overnight to Paris and the plane home on July 9th.

Party at the Château

They might have been tired, punch-drunk with cultural variety and new experiences, but they had to be welcomed with a party.  It was here they met their host families.  What would two 16 year old boys make of the fact that they got to stay with us instead of a French family?  Pleased, as it happens.  Grappling with unknown languages – French, German, Danish over 3 weeks or so takes its toll.  At least we were a bit of a rest.

The concert on Thursday evening was what we were all looking forward to.  Well, not me so much.  Malcolm had provided translation and interpreting services last time, so this year, he thought it should be my turn.

LDO Big Band get ready to play

Translation services in full swing

All went well at first:  I’d seen Michel’s speech in advance, and David’s response contained no surprises. But when it came to introducing the pieces….well…what IS the French for ‘Dance of denial’? Or ‘Struttin’ with some barbecue’?  We decided the titles didn’t matter; I bowed out, and then discovered the remaining repertoire was quite translatable, thank you.

Blue Lake Jazz Band

But those Americans!  The performance they turned in was exciting, exhilarating, excellent, extraordinary.  Impossible to believe that some of the group were only 13, and that few had left High School.  They’re so professional.   LDO Big Band was on form too, so the high spot of the evening was when the two bands came together to perform.  Their pleasure and pride in working together communicated itself to an already delighted audience, and the evening ended on a high for us all.

The two bands squeeze together to play

This opportunity to play together is apparently what makes little old Laroque worth the detour for the Blue Lake musicians: it’s not something they do elsewhere.  They’d like to send a different band our way next year, David’s year off.  It seems Laroque is now firmly on the Michigan map.


…. conquered by our American guests

The rest of the stay was given over to sleep, lots of it, and sightseeing, rather less of that.  We climbed Roquefixade to see a ruined castle, and took in the medieval town of Mirepoix. Others had different days-of-yore experiences:  Foix and Carcassonne.

The trip ended on a sad note though.  One of the group had lost her passport, and despite every effort, it couldn’t be replaced in time.  She’s still here.

Loading the bus for departure