From one viewpoint, being is a one-way stream that flows relentlessly forward, with no hope of stopping or returning. Much has been said and written about the transience of life, the irretrievability of youth and the ephemerality of everything we achieve or experience. Everything progresses without pause towards its end. You could even say that you begin to die the moment you are born. There would be incontestable evidence for that: children grow, we age, relatives die, cultures change. And yet, arguably, the starkest evidence dwells in the mind. Life is the more transient the more you think about its transience. And what a melancholy thought that is! It has been expressed by the wordsmiths with every degree of gloom, often with searing beauty, too. A random example out of a myriad is Atahuallpa Yupanqui’s speaking river: tú que puedes, vuélvete! - “you who can, go back!”.
As a light to guide your steps along the path of life, however, this thought is not very helpful. It can dim your spark and it can dull your zest. To be blunt, it can depress you to death. Luckily, there are alternatives to hand.
From another viewpoint, a more helpful one, there is a circularity about life. The seasons keep returning, as it is a delight to see, to hear and to smell in Northumberland at this time of the year. The calendar is a repetitive cycle, and the web of experiences we weave on its loom reassures us with the feeling that things do come back. We will them to return; we summon them back by the power of that homecoming momentum there is in everything that has a season or a date. Fortunately, for this, too, there is tangible evidence: the sun brightens, the foliage greens, the bluebells blossom, the river stops roaring to start singing again. And, in this regard, too, the main drive comes from within, from our inner thoughts, knowledge, affections and desires: the matutinal cup of tea, the Friday-evening release, the Sunday lie-in, the store we set by festivals, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays. Our repetitive rituals give us the means to relate to the wildness of time. We put a lasso around its neck and we ride it, clinging to it for dear life until we can be convinced that it will come home, with us on its back. Many a fall has been fallen in the course of this taming, sometimes causing injury or worse. And yet we risk it. We crave it. We need time to come back. We celebrate the return of that full moon, that spring, that solstice. The last water never flows in this river. The last summer never shines. The last colt never bolts. Lastness is not an acceptable notion in the circle of time.
My late friend Oscar Uzín Fernández, priest, novelist and music-lover, once came up with an appealing simile: the preordained structure of the day (dawn, morning, noon and so on) is the theme, whereas the experiences with which we populate each day are the variations on the theme. His precise words, which I can no longer remember, were better than that. They were a pleasure to hear, until he told you that the music he had in mind as he said them was Pachelbel’s Canon. Even in that callow age when I befriended Oscar, I had long been desensitised to any appeal Pachelbel’s Canon may have once held. A potentially good simile was thus spoiled for me.
Perhaps that was unfair of me. We don’t quibble on the musical merits of the Big Ben chimes, or Auld Lang Syne, or Happy Birthday to You. We let them punctuate our hours and years and, if we have performing privileges, we make sure there is a suitable variation to make each time’s rendition special.
My Northumbrian Anthem is on the way to becoming a landmark for certain times of the year, in my calendar at least. I could keep on wheeling it out, as I will no doubt do every time it seems necessary. But, since I do have performing privileges and, in this case, composing and arranging too, I might also update it if the occasion seems to demand it.
Here it is, in an updated version. Instead of an organ piece, it is now for brass band. That is certainly not an area of my expertise; if commissioned to do it, I might have had to bow out on grounds of inexperience. But when the imperative is compelling enough many things become possible, even if leaving perhaps some room for improvement. I did learn about the organ to write the original; I am learning about brass bands now. Brass bands are a strong tradition in the Northeast of England; it makes every sense for A Northumbrian Anthem to be heard through this medium. The keen ear (does anyone listen with that kind of attention these days?) may spot other differences, too. I may have to go back to the organ version and update it accordingly.