Beethoven, Choirs, Weddings and Sex

My love of choral music, in its many forms, is long-standing and even embraces one of my more memorable sexual encounters. It was late summer. It was a Friday and the last but one night of a Proms season but also the night before an early season rugby match.

I had planned to stay home and have an early night when Fran knocked on the door of my flat. Fran was a special sort of girl. We had dated a few times but what God had given her in looks and a wonderfully toned body he had taken away in brains. I may have been a shallow youth but even I knew that our relationship would not last long. She arrived at my door because I had failed to make any weekend or Friday night arrangements.

I was torn between emotions. I wanted to listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a perennial of the last but one Prom night. I was particularly eager for the last movement, a choral piece of wonder and amazement. But Fran was with me and this was not the piece she wanted to play.

To shorten the tale we were in bed as the music played and a game came to my head and not a game to describe to Fran. The last movement has crescendos and false endings and I determined to try and ensure that the orchestra, soloists, choir, conductor, Fran and I all managed to finish as one with the anticipated climax. For my part, I can report total success.

This may seem an odd way to write my first piece after a weekend in Cambridge during which Ben and Hannah have married.and although long and tiring, it was happy beyond any description. It was special. It was a day that exuded and radiated love and in the very nicest way, sumptuous. Ben and Hannah had gone out of their way to meet every possible whim and requirement of their guests.

Other than love, there was one joyous theme of the celebration, music.

Hannah comes from a musical family. Her father is a professional musician and she has been singing at the highest level in national choirs since she was a teenager. She sings both classical pieces and in a rock band. I learnt from the speeches that Ben’s support for Hannah is diminished and far less enthusiastic when she is singing from her classical repertoire.

Many of Hannah’s friends share her musical skill and it was no surprise that during the marriage service the chapel of Trinity College was filled with the soaring sounds of supremely talented singers.

Nothing raises my spirit more than when I hear a choir in full voice. It was awe-inspiring as the sounds resonated around and above us. Those that held back a tear at the wedding were reaching for tissues with the music.

During many a car journey, I have mused about the eight songs I would take to that isolated, proverbial desert island. While there have been many changes around the fringes, the heart of my selection has always been songs performed by massed voices.

If it’s not a church choir, you may think with my rugby tradition, that a Welsh male voice choir would be my choice but for me the home of the very best is Russia. There are very many things wrong in Russia but the heritage that will never disappear is singing.

For a very long time, the ringtone on my phone was the Russian National Anthem. It is a powerful song and would still be one of my desert eight but after the invasion of Crimea, I felt uneasy walking around Kiev hoping that my phone wouldn’t ring. I changed it to the Ukrainian National Anthem which is almost as inspiring. Now all I have to worry about is a restaurant standing to attention when I am phoned.

Normally, the highlight of any Russian choir is Kalinka, the Russian folk tune and on YouTube, there are many fabulous versions. I am not going to give you all the links and, you can easily find them yourselves. If you want to search look for the Russian Red Army and the Russian Police Choirs.

But back to the wedding.

There was a lot of debate among the guests about the tune Ben and Hannah would choose for their first dance. I was told Hannah’s favourite song is Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do for You. That would have been totally fitting but more so if it had Ben’s choice. It was, however, Happy by Pharell Williams.

What they didn’t know is that my favourite version of that song is not the original but that of Russian Police Choir while being filmed on the streets of Moscow. Go check it. That really will make you happy.

These Russian choirs may sing Kalinka and other folk songs in the homeland but for the Western market, their repertoire has been extended. I encourage you all to hunt out the Russian Police Choir singing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky or even better the theme to Skyfall.

I want you to listen first before you watch. Try and imagine the singers. I’ll try not to give too much away but Skyfall was recorded on a breakfast time TV show. There are cut off shots to the presenters pretending they are in a disco! I can assure you that beautiful tunes are not matched by the pictures you will see. These are not good-looking boy bands.

If this sparks your interest and becomes your thing then hunt for the Red Army Choir sing Jingle Bells, God Bless America or best of all Sixteen Tonnes. If these don’t make you feel good, make you smile and hum as you walk off to work then I guess there is now no hope.

A sad postscript to this is that in December 2016, 64 members of the Alexandrov military music ensemble, or the Red Army Choir as we know them in the West, who were to perform for Russian troops in Syria were killed in an air accident a few minutes out of Sochi airport.

Choral music is not just for churches and classical music concerts but enhances every emotion. I wonder what Fran remembers most of our night together? Was it me or was she also revelling in Beethoven?

The Seven Virtues #3: Chastity

Some days while I am struggling to write a piece I think about this self-imposed challenge. It is never easy, always time-consuming, mainly frustrating, often rewarding, but also thought-provoking. That is where the enjoyment comes in.

Some days I arrive with preconceptions. I am arrogant enough to think I know all the answers, but nothing focuses the mind more clearly than publishing 1,000 words. Deficient arguments will be exposed. Woolly thinking is laid bare.

It was like that last night when I started this piece on the virtue of chastity.

I was a teenager in the 1960s and those years shaped and defined me. I am a natural libertarian. I can support the decriminalisation of cannabis. I think the NHS could dispense harder drugs to take the scourge of dealers off the street. I don’t see a stigma in prostitution. I arrived at this piece with prejudice.

I have had my say about lust as a sin and now is the time to write about chastity as a virtue. I was ready to condemn, but before I put the pen to paper and in the spirit of fairness I was willing as ever to do my research.

It was unsurprising to see most of the reference were to religious sites and reluctantly I was duty bound to at least flick through them.

OK, here comes the apology, now I have a better understanding, some of my opinions have changed.

To practice chastity or to be chaste, until the sixteenth century at least, had different meanings distinguishing between sex in or out of a committed relationship. Other than, monks, nuns, and priests (I am not going to get into that discussion and the Catholic child abuse scandals) the virtue is remaining chaste and not, necessarily, practising chastity.

Let’s get then easy bits out of the way.  Simply, chastity is going without sex. Chaste is not having sex outside of a committed relationship.

There are good anthropological reasons to encourage ‘being chaste’ as a virtue. Even without the 9 months of pregnancy, it takes up to 15 years, or thereabouts, for a child to become self-sufficient. There are obviously good reasons for society to encourage chaste, meaningful relationships between the parents to ensure genetic development.

Historically, values encouraged by the Church were important to society to allow it to develop. Canon law, in its widest sense, through the Christian Church managed and is the basis and validity of marriage. It defines the ability to end a marriage as well as the rules for remarriage, and therefore defines the norms for sexual behaviour.

When society was less well defined and universal civil law was more concerned with property, making chastity a virtue and lust a sin, the Church was codifying good anthropological behaviour.

For the majority of the adult population married in a church or an equivalent place of worship, we buy into this concept of chastity with vows of faithfulness. In the Christian church the vows in The Book of Common Prayer, are: with this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and …..

Marriage, faithfulness and chastity are central to the wellbeing of society and today I have started to realise that the virtues are a guide to help build a cohesive society. Maybe, we shouldn’t look at them as absolutes.

But they must also reflect the society we live in and a society that is developing. In the UK at least, the concept of faithfulness in a relationship is being consistently diminished and for many is less relevant today. In the UK there are now 1.8 million families with one parent and dependent children

I said that was the easy bit and the libertarian in me was eventually bound to break out.

What about chastity and in particular sex as a recreational behaviour for those that are not in a committed relationship?

Since the 1960s and the introduction of effective birth control that gave control of conception to every woman, we have become far more tolerant of sex as a leisure activity.  And probably, more importantly, we have accepted that women have the right to enjoy sex every bit as much as men.

The right of women to control when they have children is usually cited as the biggest benefit of The Pill but probably the right of women to enjoy sex is the greater benefit.

But every benefit is always accompanied by a caution. Our liberal attitude to sex and internet technologies have increased the availability and distribution of pornography. Personally, I have no problem with pornography, but I do get worried about pornography and its impact on young children.

Pornography does nothing to teach children about the joy of sex and it is predominantly misogynist. We need to look at the way we educate and teach our children about the joys of sex. We should change the name from sex education to relationship education broadening its scope.

Sex can be one of the most enjoyable of all experiences and, with the noted caveats, to feel ‘dirty’ or sinful for consensual sex, is wrong. We need to educate our children to understand that sex is not a rite of passage nor an athletic pursuit but a shared and healthy expression of a developing relationship.

We always have choices. I have been in a long-distance relationship for nearly five years and staying chaste is not easy. There are always temptations, but it is part of the commitment that both Sasha and I made. We must teach our children that they also have a choice.

I do not expect my now adult children to be chaste before marriage. I do expect them to have full, rounded, and meaningful lives. I see no virtue telling anyone to deny themselves enjoyment because of a moral code that doesn’t apply to them. On the other hand when they make a shared vow of commitment I expect them to buy into it totally.

I still believe that Chastity is outdated but I am a big fan of being chaste. It’s just a shame that tolerance isn’t one of the Seven Virtues. I am feeling full of that right now.