Attending the Trinity Examiners’ Conference held in a plastic hotel in the English midlands, I escaped last night for a quiet and real dinner in a country pub; and jolly nice it was. A beer called Hobgoblin (of which I had never previously heard) washed down a lovely and warming beef stew - about as far removed from plastic hotel food as you could get. A wonderful evening!
More than that, I was not surrounded by eager examiners all discussing the merits of the last grade 1 they gave 100 per cent to or the rival horror stories of diploma candidates crashing below the 20 barrier, and could indulge in one of my favourite past-times; sitting alone by a log fire, sipping ale and eavesdropping on others’ conversations. The two tables nearest me provided enough entertainment to keep even my prurience satisfied and put the icing on the cake of a wholly enjoyable evening.
In the Window Corner was a foursome dominated (aren’t they always?) by a serious-minded, humourless and loud-voiced lady of middle age who was fighting her husband in the courts over a divorce settlement. (If everything she said was true, the husband’s antics and lies would have made Osama bin Laden blanch with horror! Unfortunately, it sounded as if the judge was not so sure that her claims held up and, as she saw it, the judge regarded her husband as a far finer figure in his goodness to his fellow men than Mother Theresa of Calcutta.)
In a juxtapositon which even a radio drama producer couldn’t have bettered, in the Alcove Corner sat a couple of women – dominated by a Honey-voiced lady (also in middle age) who oozed sincerity and love – planning the younger (quieter) one’s wedding. And after a few minutes of relishing the irony of divorce and marriage in living stereo, it suddenly struck me what Honey-Voice was. She was a Wedding Planner!
Now I’ve heard jokes about Wedding Planners, seen them on TV “reality shows” and heard horror stories concerning them, but until then I’d never realised they existed outside Los Angeles. And, listening to this one, a long-standing mystery about a wedding at which I had played the organ was resolved. I had been a victim of a Wedding Planner!
Among the catalogue of things being discussed was the music. Here’s part of the Honey Voice monologue (for that’s what it really was): “Coming in, you can have Purcell’s Trumpet Tune (she sang it in a more than pleasing contralto, and I was quite sorry when she reached, after several bars, a delightful cadence). “or The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (another great - and highly animated – vocal delivery). “The alternative is Here Comes The Bride ” (a third vocal recital, this involving Wagner), “but that’s a bit common these days. Going out you can have Widor’s Toccata” (the sung version was an object lesson in simplifying all those right hand semiquavers and turning them into coherent vocal music). “Some people used to have Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which is very nice if you like that sort of thing” (regrettably, only edited highlights were sung, this obviously being Too Common for Our Lady of the Wedding Plans) “and if you want to be adventurous you can have The Water Music” (no excerpt was sung, so we’re not sure which movement is recommended to the Brides of Northamptonshire).
How I wanted to intervene and add a few choice morsels of my own; Coming in: Wills Fanfare, Mathias Processional, C S Lang Fanfare in D. Going out:Vierne Finale, Dupre Prelude in B, Lanquetuit Toccata), but the Golden Rule of eavesdropping is never to expose yourself to your prey, so I kept my own counsel. But how I wanted to learn more. Was the organ up to such pieces? Most village organs and organists can muster enough for Wagner and Mendelssohn (which is why they are so ubiquitous), but few can manage the Queen of Sheba and even fewer the Widor; had Wedding Planner taken this into consideration?
When I was a church organist, I would sit down with brides (and, unfailingly, their mothers) and go over the music choices with them, knowing what I could play and what the organ could handle. I remember a bride mum desperate for her daughter to walk into Karg-Elert’s Nun Danket; but on a one-manual organ with no pedals and with an aisle which a one legged man without a stick could traverse in 20 seconds, I was able to persuade her that it was an impracticable choice. I also recall the 50-ton (or so it seemed) bride determined to walk in to the Bridal Chorus (which is customarily sung by English choirboys to the words “Here comes the bride, all fat and wide”). Knowing the inevitable giggles if she did, I was able to put her on to a chubby Fanfare by C S Lang and the dignity of the occasion was salved.
Wedding music is important and needs to be thought out. It sets the scene, it creates the atmosphere, it is remembered (not least on the inevitable video). How dare an ignorant Wedding Planner with a nice voice but clearly no real musical knowledge make these important decisions without consulting the organist first. It’s a recipe for disaster, and while it might take some of the burden off the bride’s preparations, in my experience brides quite like all the panic and chaos of planning their own weddings. In my case, my bride planned it all in 24 hours; the vagaries of the Malaysian system resulting in us not knowing we were going to be allowed to get married until the day before it actually took place. (Luckily a cathedral musician was staying with me and he was able to double as best man and organist in Kuching cathedral - and nobody there will ever forget Gareth Cowell’s improvised Wedding March, a curious but wholesome mixture of Aleatoric music, 12-note scales, Wagner and Procul Harum.)
Seething with anger at the presumtuousness of the Wedding Planner, I suddenly realised what was at the root of the last wedding for which I ever played. It took place in a humble Buckinghamshire church with an ancient and decrepit organ on which seven stops worked on the most heavy and uneven tracker action you could have ever envisaged, and the pedals clattered so loudly that the drawing of the sole 16 foot bourdon was a waste of time. I was never consulted on the music, and assumed it would be a normal village affair (I was doing it because I was a friend of the family). A week before I flew to the UK for the wedding, an email arrived with the music details. The bride was to come in to Bach’s mighty Chorale Prelude on Nun Danket and they were to go out to Henry Smart’s Prelude in D. I’d never played either, and had to get the Smart from a US colleague who kindly faxed over the pages. I was glad I had the DFP Klais to practice on, for the Smart is a true virtuoso piece with a huge and spectacular pedal line. What with this concert piece as well as the lengthy Bach, I assumed a church of cathedral proportions, but when I turned up for a practice a couple of hours beforehand, I was appalled at what I found. Too late do anything, I worked out how to condense the Smart on to seven stops and no pedals (just played the theme and then stopped – as it turned out the whole crew were out of the church by that time) but had no idea how to curtail the Bach, which is one of those pieces which, once begun, has to make its way in its own leisurely way uninterrupted to the end. Come the bride (a little light flashed on the organ), I embarked on the Bach, but as nobody recognised it as the entry piece, I turned it into an improvisation, put in those famous fanfare Fs from the Wagner, got the audience to their feet, and then simply played the chorale theme.
Afterwards the happy couple congratulated me – “Loved the Music. What was that lovely piece you played as I came in?” – while the parents oozed joy at the “Wonderful celebratory feel you gave with that last piece”. Clearly, none of them had any idea of what the music they had chosen sounded like. Yet, these were very rare and specific requests and until last night I had no idea how they had come about. Now I do. It was a Wedding Planner.
Memo to All Brides. Don’t allow Wedding Planners to decide on music even if they are honey-voice contraltos, otherwise you’ll be at the divorce courts in no time at all.