Chapter 8 –‘Inflammatus’
Athena Shepherd bustled into the choir room at Leach Street Presbyterian, prepared to sing with a community choir for the funeral and rehearse the solo that Aunt Hipp had requested, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Her husband was overseeing the digging of the grave and the arrangements between the funeral home and the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Thus it was, when Billy Greeter tapped on their back door, no one answered, and he let himself into the house. What is more disconsolate than a man, anticipating unburdening his weary bosom to his friends, who then finds no friends upon whom he may unburden? Poor Billy. But we must leave him momentarily to his contemplation. Funeral preparations are underway, and, dear readers, I would not want you to miss a single note of music, a single morsel of funeral-food, a single sedate expression on the faces of the funeral home men. For funerals are rare experiences. When else do we allow just anyone to blubber from the pulpit? When else do family members who’ve not spoken for decades suddenly weep upon each other’s shoulders? When else do total strangers bring casseroles to one’s house, and small communities of bereaved sufferers manage to consume enough food for an brigade? What a study of human nature, is a funeral! What a comic tragedy upon the stage! So let us look behind the curtain at the actors, and see what they are about.
Mr. Paul Shrilling is forty-four years old. He has been serving as Leach Street’s music director for thirteen years. It is generally understood in Greenfield that he is the finest musician for many miles, indeed that he could easily transfer his talents to any large church in the Southeast. Thus, although he and Dr. Cloudee lock horns often and play tug-of-war with the worship, the senior minister lives in great fear of losing his Orpheus, and always manages to express the correct gratitude and obligatory reverence due to one whose temperament is, as it should be, musically testy. Maestro Shrilling seems ageless. He is tall, slim, quick, private, and uncommunicative. All this changes, however, when he is behind his stand and at the other end of his wand. Truly, he points his wand, and magic occurs! Only the rarest of directors can elicit from gravelly basses, raspy altos, wobbly sopranos, and (of course) no tenors, the kind of ethereal strains that Mr. Shrilling obtains every Sunday.
For the college president’s funeral, he will have a large choir – a choir he wishes he could have every day of the week! For all the best college singers would be there. And Athena Shepherd with her golden voice would grace his choir room with her high B-flats. In fact, all of Mt. Moriah’s choir would come. The Snarkians are great singers, robust vocalists, and Mr. Shrilling often listens longingly to their psalm-singing, as he walks quietly by their church on a dark fall evening. Such brave forays into the land of a cappella, his choir would never dare. So Mr. Shrilling debated what to ask of his combined choir on this one, unprecedented, stupendous day. The man in the coffin was of little significance, except that his moldering state limited the available choices. The “Hallelujah Chorus” was out, of course, as was “I Was Glad.” He toyed with “He Watching Over Israel.” He thought the audience might well appreciate the image of God, watching sleeplessly over Dr. Jones and his grievers. Personally, Mr. Shrilling wished to perform the entire Brahms Requiem, but everyone would object to a three hour funeral. At last, he had decided upon the following: “When Thou Comest,” with the glorious soprano solo by Mrs. Shepherd, a choral arrangement of “The Lord’s Supper” to appease the general hoi polloi, and a thunderous finale of “Worthy Is the Lamb.” He felt a bit sorry to use something from Handel’s Messiah after all, but it couldn’t be helped, and he needed pieces that would be at least vaguely familiar to his singers. Finally, he had asked Emilia Greeter, a very fine pianist even by Mr. Shrilling’s standards, to play “Pavane to a Dead Princess” from the Steinway baby grand in her parlor, as the funeral procession moved gravely from the college chapel, through the wooded path and side gate, down to the cemetery at Mt. Moriah Church, where the great Snarkian president would rest in peace. Mrs. Greeter would open all her windows and serenade the mourners as they passed behind her house.
Thus, Mr. Shrilling was surprised when Athena Shepherd rushed into the choir room with a crumpled copy “Shall We Gather at the River.” He had never imagined that Willina Hipp would interfere with his music. The woman had the voice of a toad.
What?!” he exclaimed.
Breathless, Athena replied, “Aunty Hipp called me yesterday. She and Juanita want me to sing this,” and she held up the crinkled copy of music by its detestable corner.
Mr. Shrilling pursed his lips, as he often did when fighting such wars. He invariably won them. It mattered little what opinions were proffered by others beforehand – when he stood before his choir and his organist during the actual service, what person among the listeners would stand up on hind legs and contradict him in mid-service? None. Men and women may boisterously intrude into private conversations, phone calls, confidential meetings and romantic tete-a-tetes. But almost never does one hear of a person bellowing out in the middle of a worship service – and especially a funeral – a protest to the music director, “But I told you to sing ….” No, Mr. Shrilling always got his way, because he held the baton.
“I have planned the music, Athena. Here.” And he handed her a lovely Schirmer’s copy of “When Thou Comest.” She’d sung it before, he knew.
“Oh, how lovely, Paul. The “Inflammatus.” If only ….”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Athena. Simply put it in your black folder. This is what you’ll sing, and the choir’s part is not difficult. The college singers will lead us there easily.”
“Aunt Hipp will be livid.”
“Aunt Hipp can talk with me afterward. But I will not have photocopied hymns sung at the college president’s funeral. Not if I’m directing.” And he walked over to his growing bass section.
Mr. Shrilling’s first skirmishes were not over, however. Just after he’d warmed up his 52 voices and begun instructing them in the difficulties of Rossini’s harmonies, Willina Hipp and Juanita Jones entered the choir room. The organist stopped playing, and the singers’ voices sputtered out gradually, until only two sopranos were left, longing to sing a high note into the silence.
“Ladies,” Mr. Shrilling said. “Welcome. We are rehearsing. Can I help you?”
“Rehearsing?” Mrs. Hipp began. “I’m certainly glad to see you warming up your choir, Mr. Shrilling, but I hardly see how you can be rehearsing anything, since you do not yet have the music for the service.” Mrs. Hipp strode across in front of the choir. The powerful scent of jasmine and musk preceded her, and her deep green shawl billowed behind her in full sail. In her hands was balanced a mountainous stack of photocopied pages. She set them down heavily on the lid of the piano. “Four of President Jones’s favorite hymns, at his sister’s request. I’m sure they will be no trouble, since all the singers will know them already.” She turned her icy gray eyes upon her acknowledged opponent. “’Victory in Jesus,’ ‘When We All Get to Heaven,’ ‘In the Sweet By and By,’ and of course a solo for my niece – ‘Shall We Gather.’ You’ll hardly need the two hours of rehearsal you’ve requested of these dear people.” Here, Mrs. Hipp panned her frozen, thin-lipped smile across the room. Half of the singers were desperately hoping to sing the simple hymns. The other half were pulling for Mr. Shrilling. All of them were watching like gladiatorial spectators the scene playing out before them.
But Mr. Shrilling disappointed them. He would not enter the fray. He smiled benignly. He’d done all this before and knew that in the end, his choir would sing what he directed them to sing. He decided what music sat snugly in their folders. The Mrs. Hipp and Jones could fume in their seats, but victory goes to the one in front. He picked up the stack of music and held it to his chest.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hipp. Most appreciated. Mrs. Jones, lovely to see you again, although regrettably in such sorrowful circumstances.” He turned slightly toward his choir. “I know the choir shares in expressing our deepest condolences.” He bowed gently to the women.
This unexpected commiseration took Mrs. Hipp off her guard. As a well-battered warrior, she was used to open combat. The slight man before her seemed no adversary at all. He handed the music to a young alto and asked her to distribute it to the choir. The two visitors looked on satisfactorily as the singers fluttered and fumbled and got the pages somehow into their folders. Mr. Shrilling smiled ever so slightly to the women.
“And now, we must be sure we are prepared for the service, if you’ll allow us.” His baton lifted slightly in his hand. This was their cue to depart and leave the choir to his devices. But Mrs. Jones was less easily fooled than her friend.
“Ah, Mr. Shrilling, you won’t mind if we just stay and listen. It would greatly comfort me to hear my brother’s favorite hymns of the afterlife, sung by your choir. Just for a few moments.”
Paul Shrilling’s face tightened, and the corner of his mouth twitched. It was then that Willina Hipp realized that here was a foe of deep and intricate cunning. She had almost trusted him. Never again!
For forty-five minutes, the choir went over, and over, and over, the drudgerous pieces. The portly women sat, and smiled, and oohed. At last, Mr. Shrilling was left with no choice but to call an end to all their miseries.
“Thank you, choir. And thank you, ladies, for listening so attentively. I hope we did not disappoint?”
If they had drawn sabers, clashed shields, strung their bows taut and dug spurs into their horses for the joust, these enemies could hardly have looked upon each other with more animosity. But the women were smiling. They had won. The organist closed her instrument and changed her shoes. All the sopranos drank their last drops of water.
“Mrs. Horner, will you be sure our new members are fitted out in choir robes?” Mr. Shrilling asked of his chief alto. The singers stood and began to mingle. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Hipp turned to go.
Miss Jones’s deep voice resonated over all others: “Thank you, choir. We’ll see you at the college chapel.” And they were gone.
Everyone froze for the shortest moment. Their lord and master held them silent with his gaze. He raised his baton. His organist slipped her toes back into her little leather shoes. The sopranos sighed, and everyone opened folders once again. Mr. Shrilling quietly picked up the trash can next to the piano, and handed it to Mrs. Horner, to be passed around the room. The hymns met their fate. He placed his thin, white finger against his lips, and his choir opened to Rossini’s “Inflammatus.” Mr. Shrilling’s face wore the smile of victory.
(Copyright by M.K. Christiansen)
Here's a video of Rossini's "Inflammatus" for your enjoyment.