Of Music and Song

“Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life.” Miss Primrose Trent, Choir Mistress of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

I just finished a lovely book, especially for this time of the year, which has been on my reading list for quite some time. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan hit the spot for a cheery read as we kick off the holiday season. The all-female choir is formed when the Vicar disbands the church choir with so many of the male villagers engaged in the World War 2 effort. Some of the now defunct female choralers felt it was right to disband because what is a choir without tenors and basses, yet there were enough forward thinking women who supported an all-female choir. This time period in this little Kentish village was a very traditional patriarchal time when women did what the men expected. As these women defy traditional expectations they begin to grow into themselves as confident, assertive and strong women. The war gives the women a chance to challenge societal norms. They enter and win in choral competitions where they are the only all-female choir. They even serve as pallbearers when one of their beloved members is killed in a bombing raid. This was one of my favorite scenes- they sang the processional hymn of Abide With Me as they carried the coffin down the aisle. Ryan writes, “…the simple and yet poignant tune pouring softly from the organ, urging us to sing as a united front…for our small yet resilient community, for our dear, collapsing country. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. Thus it was that a shuddering chorus of twelve deeply saddened women, singing at first softly, then more resolutely, advanced slowly down the aisle. We sang as if our lives depended on it, as if our very freedom, our passions and bravery were being called forward to bear witness to the atrocities that were placed before us. We were united and strong, and I knew right there and then that nothing, nothing could ever break the spirit of the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.” Of all the times these women carry the load of grief and courage in their village, this scene is one of the best!

The story is told through letters and journal entries of the choir members. Margaret Tillings’ journal entries are my favorite. You see her personal growth as a grieving widow with a son fighting in France into a woman courageous enough to let herself discover love again. Margaret adores her son, like many of us adore our’s, and as Margaret watches David leave for the front, she thinks, “…I studied his broad back, his lazy lilting walk, his state of being that would no longer be mine to watch, mine to grasp. A vision came back to me of him as a boy, scampering down this very path, late for school, turning and grinning, lopsided by his heavy satchel. And just as I remembered, he turned back to me with that same look, as if the world were a great adventure for him to behold and relish, and I felt the rain washing the tears down my face for all our precious years together.” Sweet mama love and memories. Margaret also says, ” I suppose I am just one of the millions of mothers around the world standing by a door watching our children walk down the road away from us, kit bag on backs, unsure if they’ll ever return. We have prayer enough to light up the whole universe, like a thousand stars breathing life into our deepest fears.”

Ryan writes so poignantly and poetically. She is a joy to read. She also has Prim, the choir mistress say the most wonderful things, such as “Sometimes we do things without fully understanding. You shouldn’t try to know everything…Often it’s beyond our comprehension…Sometimes the magic of life is beyond thought. It’s the sparkle of intuition…” I wish someone had told me that decades ago! I might not have spent so much time living in my head.

The rich choral traditions of high church will make music lovers and choir members so happy. Ryan writes that she uses her grandmother’s stories of the war in her village in Kent, England. Her grandmother often told her “choir stories” that “dramatized the camaraderie and support…” On Ryan’s website, she calls this grandmother “Party Granny” who “was always up for a laugh and a Pink Gin, donning her high heels and finding a nice frock to wear. It was this delightful and warm lady who shared her exciting and often scandalous stories about the war.” What’s not to love, right?


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