Recently we've been following a TV series on the Welsh language channel S4C called 'Codi Canu', in which four inexperienced subjects are tasked with training a choir from scratch to perform several pieces from the contemporary Welsh choral repertoire, with the support of a mentor. The outcome of the exercise is a competition between four choirs from four different regions of Wales, in a televised event staged at Cardiff's St David's Hall. Clare obtained tickets for this, so we went along and became part of the live audience at tonight's broadcast.
It was a great musical night out. The bad weather reduced the audience somewhat, so that the place was less than half full, but there were still over three hundred people singing in the four choirs, plus their supporters, another five hundred. The floor manager had to encourage everyone to squeeze into the central section of the auditorium for the sake of the TV cameras, so that it didn't look as if we were rattling around in that great space. It's twenty years years since I last took part in a live TV event. I'd forgotten how contrived they can be, in a producer's endeavour to make the programme engaging to watch.
All four of the choirs performed well, no matter how they were rated at the end of the event. Several of the pieces they prepared were for singing together, with an orchestral accompaniment conducted by maestro (as he was properly addressed) Owain Arwel Hughes, one of the judges. A chorus from Verdi's Nabucco, another from Verdi's Requiem, a very popular Welsh hymn, and the Halleliwia chorus from Handel's Messiah (yes, sung in its Welsh translation). All were beautifully rendered, and the audience stood, as is traditional, for the Halleliwia chorus.
On reflection, I realised that ninety percent of the music performed during the evening was derived directly from a religious musical repertoire. Each choir in competition chose to sing an arrangement of a Welsh hymn, all different. It says a lot about Welsh cultural and artistic values that this is the case. And it raises the question about why churches of every denomination are so poorly attended.
It was clear to me that our audience tonight valued greatly the musical content - did that include the words and their poetic/theological significance? It's hard to say. I'm not a native Welsh speaker, although I am aware that for some who are, words and their meanings arouse emotion, just as the music does. It's all part of how identity is forged. But in our time this happens to a greater extent outside the churches' liturgical settings than within.
Our musical and literary leaders (bards and poets) command attention where priest and preachers do no longer. Perhaps this is because too many of recent generations of priests and preachers (my own included) don't resemble bards or poets, having been spiritually shaped and trained by churches to fit in to legally regulated institutions, safe and socially acceptable. While this is fine for certain kinds of insecure domesticated suburban clients, it does nothing for the natural hunger of the majority, craving for a spiritual experience still better delivered by creative artists than qualified clerics. Changes in the spiritual formation process are certainly called for in this respect.
Currently in the political arena it's debated that S4C caters only for a minority and is not good value for money. The same is also said about a great deal of Britain's prodigious creative arts enterprises. Thus it ever was in lean years I guess. S4C and British arts will never be able to convince bean counting political materialists that their value is way beyond their budget cost. They will be obliged to work harder, be less self-indulgent and waste less in order to sustain their cause.
I hope they'll survive and be stronger for the challenge nevertheless.