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waits

"Past three o'clock, and a cold frosty morning; past three o'clock: good morrow, masters all."
You woke me up to tell me that?
W/004

… but meant well, no doubt. As far as I understand it, town or city waits are what you could call a band of musical watchmen: in addition to keeping a benevolent eye on the inhabitants overnight and providing a speaking clock long before TIM, they contributed to jollier high-days and holy-days with bracing outdoor instruments such as shawms, curtholts, pommers and even the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe mentioned elsewhere in this site. Any late mediæval town wishing to impress the neighbours (or of course its own tax-paying citizens) would have had a bunch of waits. Alas, their importance declined over the centuries; the meaning slid from watchman with added music to musician with added surveillance duties before dwindling to merely carol singer and falling into general disuse.

In an age when the muezzin is replaced by a tape-recorder and the Angelus inaudible above the traffic, you could be forgiven for concluding that waits are gone beyond recall. That's reckoning without musicians, capable of an amiable and constructive fanaticism: the instruments have been revived, and this in turn has created chances to hear them. Chris and I went to a marvellous and memorable concert in Leuven, the culmination of a week-long course for modern-day players of these long-established instruments: excellent proud music, and if we were frozen to the bone in an unheated Gothic church this surely added to the authenticity of the occasion. We have also had the good fortune to hear the York Waits, first on a warm summer's day in Sint-Truiden and then in the mildly anachronistic setting of a mediæval fishing-village at Walraversijde.


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