Churches and winter weddings
I'm sitting here looking out the window on a cold damp winter's day and my musings turn to some of the coldest experiences I've ever had in my life. No, not to sledging behind a team of huskies across the mountains in Norway a hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle. That was only exhilaratingly cold, not bone marrow chillingly cold. No, not sailing in the Baltic at night in stormy weather. That was just miserable cold. I'm talking about the sort of cold that seizes up your muscles, gets into all your joints and numbs the mind. That is the sort of cold that you only find in English churches in the winter.
I can recall playing for church wedding ceremonies where I've been too cold to move my fingers and arms properly and too cold to even feel the violin strings. The congregation have been huddled together, not out of friendship or love, but just for survival and to get a bit of warmth from each other. Rows of people in thick overcoats and scarves, the steam of warm breath rising from the pews. The sound of fidgeting and stamping feet, trying to keep their feet from going completely numb, inevitably out of time with the music that you're desperately trying to play.
The string quartet is usually the first to arrive at the church, maybe up to an hour before the wedding ceremony and processional are due to take place. They have to get set up and ready to play for when guests start or arrive, perhaps half an hour or more before the ceremony begins. Perhaps the string quartet arrives even earlier than normal having left home early in case of delays because of the snow and ice, conscious of the fact that they have to negotiate country lanes that will not have been gritted or snow plowed.
They arrive at the church to find it locked and bolted. The person in charge of the church clearly has no wish to leave their warm house to unlock a freezing cold church. They are going to leave it until the last possible minute. The quartet have park their cars in the lane some distance away from the gateway to the churchyard, so that it is not to be in the way of The Bridal Car when it arrives. they have carried their instruments and stands and heavy bags of music all the way through the churchyard to the church door. They now have to turn around to trudge back down the slippery paths through the grave stones to the car, to sit in the car with the heater on and fan blowing until someone appears to unlock the church.
One of the musicians is allocated the miserable job at running back to the church every 5 minutes to see if someone has arrived via a different path. Old churchyard often have a number of gates into the graveyard and they wouldn't want to be in the position of still waiting in the car when the church gets unlocked. Perhaps some early arriving guests arrived and also try to get into the church, then trudge disconsolately out to their cars to wait. Perhaps the guests and musicians exchange a few words, where have you just travelled from, that sort of thing, but it's too cold to stay outside and chat so everybody dies back into the snow good cars.
Eventually someone shuffles up to the church door and unlocks it. The quartet gather up instruments and stands once more, then back up the pathway and into the church.
It's like the inside of a freezer. The flowers were prepared the night before and are still beautiful and fresh, basically because the church is so cold. The church is in darkness. The person who unlocked it has disappeared to some small room at the other end and has not switched on the lights. There should be four chairs prepared for the string quartet, so the musicians start searching around in the gloom to try and locate some chairs.
Nothing is visible. One of the string quartet members goes to find the person who has unlocked the church and ask about where they can find chairs, where they should position themselves. The string quartet have to be seated somewhere where they can see the bride and groom and vicar during the wedding ceremony so that they can know when to begin playing and when to stop playing music. They have to be able to see when the bride, groom and priest have returned from the signing of the register and ideally see what is happening during the signing of the Register itself. Sometimes the Register is signed in just a few minutes, so the music has to stop quite soon. You must avoid the situation where the vicar is desperately trying to make eye contact with the string quartet to let them know that they're back and ready for the next part of the ceremony, but unable to dol so. At other times the photographer takes command at the signing of the register and music has to go on and on for ever as photograph after photograph is taken while the bride, bridegroom, register and pen are all set up for the perfect shot, again and again.
Eventually the person who unlocked the church is found somewhere in the vestry. No, she doesn't know anything about chairs for the quartet ( even though the necessity for this was made clear to the bride and groom on several occasions), she doesn’t know where on earth the quartet are going to fit, all that she knows is that there will be a huge congregation that will more than fill the church We would have to wait for the vicar to arrive before we can sort anything out. The vicar is the only person who knows anything.
The musician returns to the rest of the string quartet members to tell them the news. It is going to be one of those days ! the musicians rummage in their coat pockets for their gloves in a vain attempt to keep their hands in playing condition for when they actually do get started, and head off around the church looking for chairs or anything else to sit on.
There are no chairs, only pews. Then there are noises from the bell tower, someone else has arrived. The leader investigates. Bell ringers have arrived and are untying the ropes. In a corner of the Bell Tower are four chairs. The leader greets the bell ringers, who turn round and stare at him as if they were a Martian. He explains the predicament and asks if he can borrow the chairs, explaining that the cellist cannot possibly play Standing and that although the rest of the quartet could theoretically stand they don't want to be intrusive and detract from the proper focus the wedding, which is the bride and groom. The ringers continue to stare blankly. After what seems to be an eternity, one of the ringers steps forwards with a stern look on their face. Those are our chairs he says. You can't have them. More explanation and pleading from the leader of the string quartet is of no avail. He returns to the other musicians, feeling the daggers from the stares of the bell ringers in his back as he retreats.
This is getting serious. Guests will be arriving and the quartet aren’t ready. The church door creaks open and in come the early arrival wedding guests forsaking the warmth of their car. They look round disconsolately and shuffle into a pew somewhere near the back.
The door creaks open again. In walk two people carrying a cardboard box full of orders of service. It's the ushers. No, they don't know anything about chairs and no they don't know where we should be sitting. Evidently has been discussed with the vicar, but there is no vicar around.
Then the cellist calls out that they found a dust covered chair around the back of the organ and sets it up near the font. The violin and viola players have found the small pew jammed up the side of the church which they can just managed to lift and carry to the space near the font. One of the bell ringers appears carrying a rickety chair as an offering. Ready to go. It's too cold to take coats off, but you can't play a violin and a coat. The cellist decides that he's going to play his cello in his coat, it's black and looks very smart. Gloves come off, instruments tuned and just as the first proper lot of guests enter the church the quartet begins to play.
In the bitter cold the fingers aren't moving and the arms won't push the bow up and down smoothly. A piece of music which should be relaxing and easy to play becomes a fight. To the guests it will sound perfectly normal, but the string quartet players it's anything but normal, requiring every ounce of concentration and self will.