Friday, November 18, 2016

The “Rideau Carol” – a love song to the Stairwell Carollers

David Rain, tenor, stands in front of the Rideau Falls, Ottawa

Mea culpa. 

My name is David Rain. I run marathons, and I sing a cappella.



And yes, there is a connection! I’ve been singing tenor in the Stairwell Carollers since 1993, and running marathons since 1995. A long time. But the connection “runs” deeper, of course

When I run, ideas pop into my head. And thus, while on a long training run in the fall of 2015my throat got dry and I stopped for a drink in Vincent Massey ParkAs I looked up from the fountain, I saw sign pointing north that said "Chutes Rideau Falls." 

Suddenly, without warning, a whole Christmas carol flashed before my very eyes. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A great view of the Rideau Falls, David's Muse
 In an instant, three ideas popped into my head:

(1)  That the carol would be bilingual, in keeping with the glorious linguistic mix of this amazing choir.

(2)  That the Rideau Falls would play an important part; hence, the first verse opens with "As the icy curtain descends"  the word "rideau" in French meaning "curtain" in English.

(3)  That a key musical theme right from the outset would be a cascading melody of some kind that would also be a play on words – i.e. the word "chutes" in French means "falls" in English, while its homophone "chut" means "hush", and has spiritual connotations, inviting listeners to be quiet, since the baby (Jesus) is sleeping.

Thus the carol, right from its conception, has both religious and secular foundations – just like our choir members – and the interplay between these two forces defines the whole character of the piece.

The Stairwell Carollers race across the street to carol in Byward Market

This carol was meant to pay homage to the Stairwell Carollers. And in a real sense, my “Rideau Carol” is a love song to the choir.

And hence, key elements of the choir's experiences were meant to be brought out in the piece, including places we have sung at: e.g. Parliament Hill, the National Gallery, the Byward Market, and so on. And there is a fun verse bringing out the secular half of the equation, which starts, “We ski, we skate, we slip and we slide”, and so on.

And I couldn't resist writing some special text, and music, in honour of the choir's name, and thus there is an extended section of joyful bursts of sound on the word "carolling", and a special climax on the word "stairwells."

David, left, Carolling with the Stairwell Carollers in Ottawa's Byward Market

As the “Rideau Carol” developed, and I worked more closely on the opening "chutes" melody, I realized that it worked best starting with high women's voices, and in a kind of trio. It didn't take long for me to figure out that, in terms of orchestral instruments, this cascading melody perhaps most closely evoked the sound of three flutes, and hence the sub-title of the piece, "Chanson des trois flûtes."

The fact that there are three flutes also helps underscore the spiritual half of the carol's foundation, i.e. the Holy Trinity. Spirituality is also implicit in the reference to the Rideau Canal and especially the Rideau River flowing into “the wise old Outaouais (Ottawa River), as these are sacred sites for the Algonquin peoples on whose land most of us are dwelling.

Lastly, as someone who has struggled to adapt to the sometimes harsh winters of our nation's capital (I grew up on the milder west coast and spent 10 years in Tanzania in East Africa), I added some text and music that were meant to evoke a west coaster's mindset
Typical winter weather in Canada's Capital

By this, I mean those frustrating feelings fomenting inside, reacting to our excessively long winter; the ever-present dreams of spring coming soon, soon, soon… mixed, unfortunately, with the stark reality that sometimes spring takes a very long time, and hence, musically, the overall major tonality does slip into a minor key here and there, struggling to find that major resolution!

I can't describe my joy and pride while listening to my fellow choir members rehearse the Rideau Carol, with Pierre Massie our brilliant director pushing and prodding us in tough spots that I never suspected would be tough, bringing those notes on the printed page to life. Tbe a witness to this miracle is one of the great joys of my life so far.

Director Pierre Massie leads the Stairwell Carollers in rehearsal


Pierre deserves special mention for patiently mentoring me for over a year to make this the very best Rideau Carol that I was capable of writing.

And last but not least, I’d like to acknowledge first, my daughter Salima, who is coming up from Toronto to hear the premiere performance of the “Rideau Carol” in Chelsea QC on November 26 – she has been with me on this project right from the get go, and was part of a small family team that did the first semi-public performance of an early version of the piece a year ago at my aunt’s Christmas lunch in Vancouver as well as my two former choir buddies, Nikki and She-Yang, who gave brave and inspiring duet version of the “Rideau Carol” at Josée’s choir party in January.

David plays accompaniment to the Rideau Carol

Chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes, chutes
“Il est, il est, il est né, l’enfant est né“, chantent nos trois flûtes. 

As the icy curtain descends,  
Et “la Veille de Noël” daylight ends,   
To the wise old Outaouais River, flow
Both frozen canal and rivière Rideau.

David Rain

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