November 16, 2004

Polperro Fishermen's Choir: Songs of Praise

The weather here in New England has turned. No longer on the summer-fall cusp, we teeter now between fall and winter. ‘Tis the season to argue with one’s teenagers about wearing coats. ‘Tis also the season for harvests and holidays, music and gatherings, peace and comfort found in a circle of family and friends. This time of year, my taste in music turns from secular to sacred, and I spend more of my piano-playing time with hymns of praise, hopeful carols, and rich, liturgical choral works like Franck’s Panus Angelicus.

When I was a student in Paris, negotiating the city with little money in my pocket, living with a family who hosted me only because they earned a stipend, trying to communicate in a place with little patience for the imperfect, I found solace in churches and cathedrals, and I’d often duck off the street, sit in a dark pew, and let the notes of a practicing choir or organist soothe and renew me. Ever since, I’ve savored the depth and dimension that music brings to the travel experience.

Music helped knit our family into the life of
Polperro, an ancient Cornish fishing village with a harbor tucked snug behind high, green headlands. We’d rented a flat at Brent House, high on Talland Hill above the harbor and the English Channel. The Polperro Fishermen’s Choir was due to sing at the Polperro Methodist Church at 6 p.m. one evening. I pried the family from other pursuits, and we made our way down the steep hill into the village. A young man in black clothes and carrying a briefcase ran past us. He greeted us with a smile, then continued his headlong rush. “Think he’s the minister?” I asked Mike. “He looks like he’s late for church...”

He wasn’t the minister, but he was a member of the choir, and he greeted us again in the church’s small forecourt where he stood with the 22 other choir members, all with portfolios or briefcases containing their sheet music. “Go right in!” said a charming lady at the gate. “Hear the fishermen sing (although they’re not all fishermen),” she admitted winkingly. You could tell which ones were by their sun-reddened faces and their sturdy, muscular bodies. They were a fit, handsome group. Most had hair whitened by wisdom, sea and salt, but some were younger, with, God willing, decades left to fish and sing.

We sat upstairs, near the choir. The service was a centerpiece of Polperro’s Harvest of the Sea, and the choir had come to sing supplications to God to protect those who made their living from the sea and risked death to harvest its bounty. The church was clad in nautical attire. Fishnets full of paper fish cut-outs hung from the balconies. Fat sea ropes festooned the preacher’s pulpit, above which towered a fishing boat’s main mast. Seashells lined the altar, and lifejackets, buoys and a gleaming sextant in a hand-crafted box sat as offerings.

The Polperro Fishermen sang eight glorious hymns, most a cappella. Dressed in black roll-necked shirts reminiscent of the roll-necked jerseys that wives and daughters knit for their men who go to sea, the 23 voices filled the church with powerful songs of praise and faith. Their music at once transported and tethered you. Transported you to a spiritual place where ties bind men to God and to each other. Tethered you to the often harsh realities of Cornish fishing village life. They sang of God as anchor. Of rest, respite, rescue and safe harbors. Their stances and voices were strong and steady, like a good boat’s course. Some sang with eyes closed and arms locked over chests. Their straightforward reverence filled the church in forceful, deeply moving swells.

We put some American dollars in the offertory pouch that one of the choir members had circulated around the upstairs pews. When the last hymn was sung, and the benediction delivered, we made our way downstairs to file out with the rest of the congregation. A lady we’d chatted with earlier had gathered a few friends, and they waited for us at the bottom of the stairs. “These people came all the way from Boston!” she told them. The ladies grasped our hands and told us they were thrilled to see us. Then a voice called out, “Now! To the quay!” The church emptied, and we made our way to the harbor, where the Harvest of the Sea celebration would continue.