Category Archives: Church Music

My delight in church music and how I, a non-musician, became involved in it.

No Small Wonder


Canterbury choir

The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, 1986. Dr Barry Rose invited me to shoot a series of pictures on the day they recorded the carol. (On ‘LP’.)

Earworm. This, I am told, is the correct name for that annoying scrap of music that insists on ringing in the ears and round and round the brain from the moment you wake in the morning until you fall asleep at night. You cannot stop it. One November morning in 1983 I woke to find I had an earworm. But mine wasn’t music. I am a lyricist, so my earworm was considerate enough to present itself in words. Two words. ‘Small wonder.’

Small wonder small wonder small wonder small wonder – it went on and on throughout the morning, the afternoon, the evening. It was the same the next morning. I had to do something to stop it.

And then I had a bright idea. I was in the middle of writing lyrics for a new collection of Christmas carols. Suppose I wrote one using the words ‘small wonder’? Might that stop it? I began writing. And so the carol No Small Wonder began to emerge. And, yes, the earworm stopped.

I wrote the three short verses about the wonders of the Christmas story. The crowd of singing angels! The strange star seen by the three wise men! The shepherd being told by the angels where the baby, Jesus, could be found! However, all through these three short verses there is a ‘but’. All these wonders were small wonders when you consider the astonishing fact that God himself was coming to Earth as a human being! Over all these lesser wonders came that one truly enormous wonder; no small wonder indeed.

Screen shot 2013-12-18 at 15.45.12

The poem was written. I sent a letter to my dear composer friend, Paul Edwards, enclosing my poem. Paul remembers the day it arrived. He writes:

I well remember Friday 18th November 1983, when the morning post brought Paul’s text beginning, “Small wonder the star. . .  I was on my way to the nearby ‘Washeteria’, so I took the verses and some manuscript paper with me to while away an idle hour. And so it was that No Small Wonder (op. 204) came into being.”

His idyllic composition knocked me out. I had never heard anything quite so lovely. It transformed the words. Not long after it was published by Animus it spread across the country and round the world. Cathedral choirs, small church choirs and choirs of many kinds embraced it. The BBC included it in its televised Christmas 2000 broadcast of carols sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Animus tells me that this earworm-cum-washeteria production has broken their records

NOTE: Some internet references mistakenly refer to it by its first line, ‘Small wonder the star’. but the title remains, No Small Wonder.

Now see and hear the recording made in Paul Edwards’s own church, with Paul himself accompanying.

The Organ and its Pipes

My wife and I were working at the Ludhiana Christian Medical College and Hospital in the early 1960s. In the college chapel there is an organ with an unfortunate history. It was donated by the authorities of the Vice-Regal Palace chapel up in Simla shortly after Independence was declared in August, 1947.  It was a very fine instrument with about nine hundred pipes: naturally, its removal involved total dismantlement, the pipes being removed one by one and the identity of each one carefully marked on it in ink. They, with all the other parts, were loaded onto a heavy vehicle, covered with tarpaulin and driven from Simla to Ludhiana.

It was the monsoon season and upon unloading the vehicle it was found that the heavy rain had penetrated the covering. The full significance of this dawned on the installer only when he picked up the first of the 900 pipes and looked for the ink markings. He found nothing. He had no idea where it should go. The reason: whoever had done the marking job had not used a waterproof ink. The leaking covering had meant that none of the pipes escaped the rain. A determined effort was made to find a way of making the instrument produce helpful sounds of some kind. The result was a little disconcerting but, all things considered, it was a noble effort. Barbara was asked to take on the post of Organist. After her first service she said that the experience was ‘interesting’.

But, had you been in the position of that poor installer, what would you have done? Answers on LinkedIn, please! Or here if you wish.

The Water Poem

Me, I’m a versifier. Give me a subject, any subject within reason, and I’ll write a bit of verse for you that rhymes, has a definite beat and, after you’ve read it, leaves you with something to ponder on. There are limitations, of course. First, I need to know something about the subject. I need time. I need time to think about it, obviously. Then I need time to start getting something on paper or, in my own case, screen.

I need time to get rid of the lot and start again. And when I have finished it for a second time I need time to show it to someone not involved to see how it strikes them. I then need time to start again.

Sometimes, the request is easily met and flowers are strewn in my path. Sometimes I get a blinder that sends me rushing to my room and my comfort blanket and drawing the curtains.

Once, this did happen. Not the comfort blanket bit but certainly the rushing to a small room – I forget which one. The chap on the phone said actually he not only wanted the poem to be on a specific subject, he had to have it by the following weekend.

The specific subject was water. The chap – just one chap – who wanted it was the Speaker for the Sunday service at a rather well-known church, and his subject was Water. And he wanted it to be in the form of a hymn. He wanted words for singing. For singing by the church congregation and the Choir. And set to some already well-known tune.

I could not swear to it but I daresay I slept fitfully that night. And the next. I bubbled and possibly squeaked and was very hard to get on with for several days. Draft followed draft. But I made it; I not only made it but also received a very nice note of thanks from the Speaker.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am preparing you for one day a little while from now when I shall be able to tell you about a brief given to me for a hymn on a subject so utterly un-hymnlike, so foreign to any church congregation anywhere in any kind of church that you can think of, that you will scarcely believe me.

Watch out.

Charles Wesley: two thoughts

I‘m afraid, for this bit of fun, the reader has to know something about Charles Wesley, the English hymnwriter of the 19th century, and in particular his love for – and his extraordinary skill in using – the English language. In his well-loved hymn, ‘O thou who camest from above’ he uses the word ‘inextinguishable’. At first sight it looks unsingable. Then you find that, with absolutely no effort, you’ve just sung it. Wonderful.

Mr Wesley, of hymnnody, King,
Once did a remarkable thing;
    Is six syllablesful
Yet it's awfully easy to sing.

And, in passing:

Charles Wesley liked to use the pun
   But most of all the metaphor;
And managing the two in one
   I’m sure he felt much better for.


words ©paul wigmore 2013

Dr Alan Ridout and cantata ‘Samuel!’

 L MacDonald

 Lake MacDonald, Quebec


It was 1994. I was in a small apartment on a mountainside in the Laurentians. I was taking a bath. I knew I had plenty of time to soak before doing my talk to the assembled masses. The water was hot, wonderfully soothing after a gruelling transatlantic flight, London to Montreal.

I stirred the glorious water around me and shut my eyes. The local time was early evening but brain and body were way ahead of that, ready for bed and sweet dreams. The boy who had escorted me up the track said he would come later on and give me a knock when the assembled boys’ choir was ready for me.

I was at ‘Cammac’. Or, as it appears in the literature, CAMMAC. It’s been there, on the edge of Lake MacDonald, for sixty years.

CAMMAC stands for Canadian Amateur Musicians Musiciens Amateurs Canadiens. It welcomes groups, adults or children, interested in learning from highly experienced, bilingual instructors how to get the most out of their musical skills. The guests who had arrived for this week were choristers and leaders from the MBCC – the Montreal Boys’ Choir Course. This is sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Montreal and affiliated with the US Branch of the Royal School of Church Music.

I had been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write the libretto for a cantata, which the choir would perform in the enormous cathedral-like church of St George, Montreal. After consultation with choir and composer I chose the story of Samuel. The story: the boy Samuel and the strange voice he heard in the night. And now the time had come to listen to a choir of boys and men rehearsing it. In a week’s time, we would be listening to its first performance in the huge St George’s.

Dr Alan Ridout, was the composer. Throughout this week, Alan and I would be sitting somewhere at the back of the rehearsal room listening intently, he ready to offer musical advice should the conductor ask for it, and I to make any small changes to the words should they find bits that needed editing in order to make them sound better when sung.

Now, as I lay in my bath, eyes closed and sleep taking over, the choir and staff would be finishing their evening meal and starting to prepare for the preliminaries, which included an introductory speech from me. But, sleep having won, I was unaware of everything.

I was woken by a repeated knocking at the door. I sat up.

‘Hello? Yes?’

‘We’re ready for you now, Mr Wigmore.’

‘What? Already? But -’

‘Just as soon as you can. Thanks. See you down there.’

I leaped out of the bath, hit my knee on something very hard and fell over. I only half-dried myself and you may know yourself how very difficult dressing is when you’re damp.

I looked for my notes; they ought to have been in my case, but weren’t. I found them in my flight bag. I ran out of the house and down through pine trees, tripping over a root. (I should say here that I am speaking of 1994. The setting is now still in the same place but completely re-styled.)

I entered the room just as the choirmaster was saying, ‘He ought to be here by now’ and, as I panted my way to the front, everyone began clapping.

After some fun, telling them what had just happened, I told them the story of Samuel. The 12-year-old boy who was in the protection of Eli the priest, and who one night was woken by the sound of someone calling him. He scrambled to his feet and ran to Eli, for he thought it was Eli who had called. Eli said he had not called and told him to go back to his bed. Again he was woken by the voice. Again he ran to Eli. ‘No, I did nor call you, Samuel. Now go back to your bed and sleep.’ But after some minutes had passed the voice came again. ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ He ran to Eli and said, ‘Master, you did call me!’ Eli then knew that something very important was happening. It was God who called the boy. He told him gently to go back to his bed and, when the call came again, to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears you.’ And Samuel obeyed. The message God had for him was the beginning of a life he had never expected.

The way those boys listened was rewarding. Serious faces were practically motionless all the way through the story. They were the perfect audience. And, after all, they were a hard-working one. I had already attended other RSCM events and knew the high standards insisted upon.



(These three b/w pictures from the 1999 Course by courtesy of MCCB)


The week seemed to fly past. In the well-timed breaks for relaxation the boys kicked footballs, flew kites, messed about and enjoyed themselves. On the final morning Alan and I sat side by side as usual, listening. Every now and then he would nudge me and whisper ‘Perfect!’ or ‘Ah, that was so good’ and I could see he was beginning to relax. It was going to be good.

And then, to crown what had been a wonderful week, I had an unforgettable surprise. As they sang I was aware of a door opening at the top end of the long room. The Secretary emerged. I watched as she moved quietly out and stood, trying to catch the conductor’s eye without actually interfering.

Eventually he spotted her and stopped the choir. She went up to him and said something quietly. He turned to face the room.

‘Is Paul here?’ he called, then, ‘Ah, Paul! You’re wanted on the phone.’

I could feel my throat going dry as I walked to the secretary’s office. Was it bad news? Some accident to my wife, Barbara? Our kids? The Secretary closed the door behind me. I picked up the phone. It was Barbara calling from England.

’Congratulations!’ she said, ‘you’re a Grandfather!’ The rest of the conversation was blurred by my astonishment – not that I didn’t know the great day was getting close.

I came out of the office trying to get my head round the fact that I had a granddaughter and found Alan standing by the door, looking anxious.

‘Everything all right, Paul?’ he said. And I told him, hardly hearing my own voice. He gave me a hug then turned and called to the conductor and the whole room.

‘I say! Paul’s a grandfather!’

The applause from the singers finished me off. The lump in the throat came and, so far as I can remember, I simply raised a hand in appreciation and stumbled back to my seat, with Alan in tow.

It was a week of sheer heaven; I was immersed in fine music and excellent company and I enjoyed myself utterly, thanks to the commission from the RSCM.

The birth of our first granddaughter, Eleanor, crowned it all. I dedicated the cantata to her.