Apple Tree

Last night’s Choral Evensong began with one of my favourites; a piece which gets sung quite a lot at this time of year and which is high on the list of Music Which Makes Me Cry. It was Elizabeth Poston’s carol Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. It is the weirdest thing. Most of the time I’ve no idea what the words mean and the music is strange and beguiling too. The central metaphor is that Jesus Christ is, well, an apple tree.

In the days when I thought I had to understand everything, it would have infuriated me to hear this kind of thing in church. Now I love it. In the space of a few bars of music and a few verses of text I find my own sense of self rebounding and reacting to images which are just over the horizon of what I really understand.

It affected me so much last night that I came home and looked up Elizabeth Poston. (Well, I typed her name into Google, if that counts as looking someone up). It seems that she was something of a mistress of the strange.

There is some information about her on this page, which also contains a fantastic picture. It seems that in wartime, she was a secret agent within the BBC, “using gramophone records to send coded messages to allies in Europe.”

That seems to me to be the most perfect way to understand her strange carol. The words are not by her, of course, they are from the New World. But it is not at all difficult to think of them being a coded message to allies overseas. Easy to see why they appealed to her enough to set them to music.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive:
Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

There is a nice youtube video of the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing it in about 1993 here.