Wafting aromas of warming mince pieces and gently-mulling wine set the festive scene for the first Wootton Christmas Musical Talk on December 12th. On stage, Simon – a village resident and a familiar voice on BBC Radio 3 - acted as an historical DJ, taking us on a magisterial and witty tour of the sights and sounds of Christmas past.
Hairs on the backs of spines went up as he took us on a journey to ancient Egypt to hear an extraordinarily atmospheric BBC broadcast from the Cairo Museum in 1939 – when the silver and copper trumpets found in Tutankhamun's tomb were played for the first time in 3000 years. And the link with Christmas? The decorative images adoring the bell-ends of the trumpets hark back to the great Egyptian festival celebrating the birth of the god Horus – around December 25th
The Christmas celebrations of the early Christian Church drew on many pagan mid-winter festivals, and Simon played a recording of his reconstruction of the ‘Song of the Sibyl’ from the 10th Century. An echo of these traditions lasted until the 15th century in the form of the Feast of Fools, in which there was much revelry in church - priests danced in the aisles and made vile incense from the soles of old shoes. We settled for the opening of the ‘Mass of the Ass’, with plenty of irreverent Eeyawing from the choir. Later on, Christmas 1554 was celebrated more soberly by Thomas Tallis, who used the plainchant melody ‘Puer natus est’ (Unto us a child is born) for a Mass which also celebrated the rumour that Queen Mary I was pregnant.
Today the carol is the cornerstone of Christmas celebrations, but Simon explained that in medieval times carols could be on any subject – even the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Carols had a very simple form (many verses interspersed with a catchy refrain), and, by the 18th Century, singers had many different tunes to choose from – for example, we heard two unfamiliar versions of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks’.
Oxford was at the forefront of the carol revival in the 19th Century (at Magdalen College), and in 1928 the Oxford Book of Carols was edited by the well-known English composer, Vaughan Williams. Simon played a fascinating excerpt of a programme he’d unearthed in the BBC archives of Vaughan Williams making the case in 1955 for the revival of traditional British carols accompanied by his whistling false teeth.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, new mechanical techniques were employed to bring a sparkle to Christmas in the home and Thomas Edison’s sophisticated new Phonograph, which played wax cylinders, was the must-have Christmas present for the well-to-do Edwardian. Simon was delighted to be able to demonstrate his own Edison phonograph from 1909, and played ‘A Christmas Ghost Story’ which although recorded in 1905 was so loud and clear that even those at the very back of the hall caught the punch-line …
Simon’s new version of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen had been premiered in Florence just a couple of days before his talk and he had been invited to a gala performance in the world heritage city of Ferrara – but his loyalty was such that he opted to talk in Wootton instead and everybody was particularly grateful for the time he had put into his presentation.
After the talk,some CDs which Simon had produced were sold, as well as a Wootton Talks 2013 calendar, featuring back-drops designed over the past four years by Marlene Fisher. This helped push the total proceeds for the evening – our 46th talk - to over £1,000 for the first time.
“Wootton is so lucky to have such high-calibre speakers as Simon living in the village and he delighted a packed hall with his combination of erudition and insight with a witty and informal delivery. Some of the recordings he played of medieval music, plus later carols, were truly wondrous and he effortlessly put everybody in the Christmas spirit with an evening that we shall remember for years to come – Geoff Roberts, Stratford upon Avon.