[Dear Jon: My best Nondenominational Jingle Bells to you! JG]
Jon Carroll / SF Chronicle
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
I am not, as you might imagine, a San Francisco Bach Choir
kind of guy. I mean, I approve of the institution and wish
it well and all that, but it would not be at the top of my
list of performance organizations to visit this holiday
season. Besides, there was football on television. I think
for most people, the choice between the Bach Choir and
football is an easy one; it's just not always the same
I sang in a choir when I was a lad. You would have thought
that would have made me a convert, but no. I also took four
years of Latin as a lad, but I feel no urge to go where
Latin is spoken for a hit of the old declensions. And the
Bach Choir would be singing in Latin, although it would not
be singing Bach. Go figure.
But I have a friend who sings in the Bach Choir, and there
were going to be Christmas carols involved, and the Minnesota
Vikings were treating the 49ers the way the Roman centurions
treated Jesus, so I went over to Calvary Presbyterian Church
on Fillmore Street to see the show.
The CPC is an interesting building with lots of wonderful
stained-glass windows, none of which depict, you know,
Calvary. Probably too depressing. And the choir was touchingly
earnest, filing in in black garments and looking a little
like a line of mourners. I did what I usually do in these
situations - I looked at the pretty girls. Men are such
As the music started, I watched the body language of the
choir members. There were the head bobbers, of whom there
were many, and the rarer chin jutters, who emphasized the
beginning of each phrase with an emphatic thrust forward
from the neck. There were the from-the-hip swayers - no
secular hip swaying was, of course, involved - and the
from-the-toes-swayers. The most interesting were the
wave-motion movers, whose heads described a shallow U-curve
every few measures. A gospel choir would have choreographed
these movements, but I am guessing that the Bach Choir
thinks of itself as a motionless song-delivery unit.
At halftime, as we say in Bach Choir circles, I thought:
Well, that was a nice thing. Once every decade or so I could
So then came the second half. The church was plunged into
darkness. From each side, singers emerged from the large
doors and walked up the side aisles and then back down the
middle aisles, singing as they went, candles burning in a
clever potable music-stand-cum-candleholder. They were
singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
And I lost it. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was
surprised by my tears and uncertain how to turn them off.
At one point I was sobbing like someone who had just lost
It's a carol I know, so I guess some childhood nostalgia
thing may have been at play. But I am not religious and
thus do not believe that Emmanuel has come to ransom captive
Israel - although I wish someone would ransom captive Israel
and soon too, before the world blows up. Just tell us where
to leave the money. I do not believe that the birth of Jesus
of Nazareth is a cause for rejoicing any more than I believe
that the birth of Jesus of Mexico City is a cause for
rejoicing, except among Jesus' immediate relatives.
And yet, and yet ... music is music. Good singing is good
singing. And candlelight is candlelight, and when you are
surrounded by song in a darkened room, something in your
soul - in my soul - reaches out for the ineffable.
I think maybe the religious impulse doesn't have anything
to do with religion. I think it has to do with yearning and
loss and beauty and hope. It can attach itself easily enough
to a belief system - hymns are basically a get-them-into-the-tent
marketing device, which is why megachurches use rock 'n'
roll to keep the parishioners on message - but it doesn't
need to. It can merely be wonder that we flawed humans can
produce such transcendent sounds.
And the beauty makes us cry, which is as it should be.
Alas, the persistence of the religious impulse made me think
of Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. I prayed to the Lord that
these thoughts might be taken from me, but the Lord seems
indifferent to my pleading on electoral matters. Perhaps
he's spending too much time deciding the outcome of football
games. (By the way, Lord, a hearty "well done" on the whole
Joe Montana thing.)
Anyway, Huckabee and Romney. Thursday's column. Urk.
Please don't desert me now. Not you, Lord; you, dear reader.
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