Sunday, 27 February 2011

Get me to the font on time

Rustle, rustle, whisper, whisper, tee-hee, giggle, giggle. Note-passing in the back row? A silent but deadly? Risqué mobile phone photos?

It couldn't have been this, of course, because this happened in the mid-90s. It wasn't in school, either, but during a rehearsal of the 50-strong French choir I used to conduct.

One of the sopranos asked if we would sing at her daughter's wedding. While - like most choirs - we had a wide funeral repertoire, there wasn't much pacy, festive stuff suitable for a wedding. There was general agreement about taking part. Monique, the choir president, suggested a gospel song, O Happy Day.

The title seemed tailor-made for a wedding. Not being all that strong on gospel songs, I didn't realise until we'd started to learn O Happy Day that it's a happy-clappy adult baptismal hymn. No matter. A few of the choir had just enough English to understand the title, but the rest of the words were far, far beyond them, explain them though I might.

To avoid any copyright issues I re-arranged the music, writing the words in English, syllable by syllable, underneath the music in the usual way. They couldn't have had more expert advice on how to pronounce it.

But they hated singing in English, almost as much as singing in German. We can't do other languages, they said, it's not in our blood. (Very occasionally you would overhear them speaking Occitan, sister language to Provençal, and sometimes they'd surprise you with their fluency in Spanish. But English, no.)

Rehearsals went badly, mostly because they found the words so difficult, but suddenly, inexplicably, it all came right. This was during the rehearsal in which there was all that paper-rustling and passing of notes, or whatever it was. Back row complicity. And not just the back row. The whole lot seemed to have some smug secret. When we came to run through O Happy Day, the words were strongly accented, but otherwise seemed reasonably convincing. Did it matter, anyway? Who listens to the music at weddings? All the same, I was relieved.

Monique, a neat and collected lady, wasn't president for nothing. She turned out to be the culprit. No, not for juvenile misbehaviour. She had typed out, to the best of her understanding, a phonetic version of the words for the ease and convenience of the troops. She'd distributed it surreptitiously while they were singing other things. I came across it in a forgotten folder the other day. There it is, up there.

Despite a problem distinguishing between 'watch' and 'wash', Monique clearly deserves a prize for the most outrageously nonsensical representation of an English text ever. The actual words are:

O happy day, when Jesus washed,
O when he washed,
When Jesus washed, he washed my sins away,
O happy day!

He taught me how
To watch, fight and pray,
And live rejoicing every day,
Every day.
O happy day!

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