It’s that time of the year again when winter chill creates a wonderful frisson of delight as the cold wind buffets us throughout the day and the night warmed by happiness-filled carols. Christmas is a time when all the churches in the city are decorated with wreaths and faux Christmas trees decked up with bells, stars and streamers which wraps everyone in the festive spirit.
Carols are a major part of this ubiquitous bonhomie that continues till the New Year arrives. Choirs, old and new, begin preparing for the Christmas Eve mass and Morning mass on Noel morning which is attended by Christians across the State. For one of the oldest choir groups in the city at St John’s The Baptist Church in Secunderabad, the practice sessions begin as early as August.
“Last Sunday, we did the ‘Festival of Nine lessons’ which narrate the nine lessons from the Bible and also the complete nativity of Christ. With each lesson, we sing the song or anthem related to the verse being read. We do this every year in December. The tradition has been continuing since the time of the British,” explains Joshua Virender, organist at St John’s The Baptist Church who along with Commodore TMJ Champion plays the century old pipe organ.
The choir is made up of 40 members who are trained and practice for a period of three months. They meet once a week, which is then advanced to mid-week sessions as the festival approaches. For organists like Joshua and Champion, it also means practising the music on the pipe organ in the free time they get. “Sometimes, we also practice in the night till 10:30 pm as we have to be in tandem with the choir. We have to make time as we don’t get a chance to do so during prayers,” quips Joshua.
Despite varied work schedules, the choir which comprises working women, men and children of all ages manages to come together and sing in harmony. And with the congregration’s collective eye on them, everything is managed with great precision. “The placement of every person, how you come and go, also matters. For the children, especially when they hold candles, they are told when they are supposed to come out, go back and bow before the altar which are all steeped in Anglican traditions and still being followed,” says Joshua who appeared for the organ exam which is assessed by Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London. “There are eight levels of the exam on the organ, so far, we have completed six,” adds Joshua.
Before Christmas, the songs are about Advent, but as December 25 arrives, they switch to hymns and carols. “We select compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, George Frideric Handel which needs a lot of practice as Handel’s compositions are pure Western classical and religious music,” explains Joshua.
Indeed, a keen ear for classical music and being able to read music is a plus, but it’s the voice and passion which really plays into how members of a choir are selected. Daphne de Rebello, one of the three founder-members of the well-known Festival Choristers says, “We do voice testing for those who want to be part of the choir. So, usually, they need to approach any of the three founders and we see their range. We tell them if they possess a high voice, they would be suited as a soprano, those with low voices are made altos, so, according to that, they practice at home.” She also explains that a lot of people tend to be good singers alone, but can’t sing in a group where each person sings different verses at times which can be distracting to those not used to such singing.
The Festival Choristers was the brain-child of three civil servants – Rachel Chatterjee, Aruna Bahuguna and Daphne de Rebello who wanted to “create a choir that will have people from different churches and even faiths”. “It’s meant to be about Christmas spirit, love, peace, forgiveness and generosity. And the people come of their own accord, it’s purely voluntary,” shares Daphne.
Each year, the group formed in 2006 performs once during December at Ravindra Bharathi. Only one year, the choir sang on Easter and Christmas. Like other choirs in the city, their practice also begins in August and picks up in frequency, sometimes thrice a week once Yuletide arrives. Surprisingly, both Daphne and Joshua say that numbers of their choir keep increasing with youngsters showing an interest in joining the choir, especially women. It’s the youngsters who have to continue the traditions, according to the two musicians.