Four carols to kick off the festive season

The tree is up, the lights are on, and save for one or two decorations in need of repositioning, everything’s looking good, even if my arms are now covered in an unexpectedly prickly rash.

Baubles, lights, and other ephemera retrieved from surprisingly tidy boxes demonstrated that me and The OH’s decoration packing strategy honed at beginning of this year had paid dividends. Rediscovering each decoration in the box also triggered memories of traditions started in years gone by.

Decorating for Christmas has then an unexpectedly joyful element of being reunited with old friends.

Similarly so where the music that accompanies the decorating process is concerned.

The carols and seasonal music one plays this season only really gets listened to once every year. We demand a lot of our Christmas music; it only really has one chance at the big moment. Melodies and harmonies bind themselves to memories of Christmases past. Wallowing inevitably follows. No other music has the power (and is required) to command so much in such a short space of time.

Some of the music me and The OH play as we decorate remains the same: Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphon;, a smattering of Rutter; Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

This year some of that music has been superseded by new personal discoveries, a selection of which is included below.

I’m struck by the personal needs this music meets. There’s a desire for something distinctive (or maybe just different), a ‘hard edge’, or in one case something mystical, fantastical and a little other-worldly.

Not so much revelling in the headiness of a contrived Dickensian Christmas, more a musical articulation of the way I now see the Christmas story.

Once in Royal David’s City / Voces 8 / Thomas Hewitt Jones

The third verse arrangement by Thomas Hewitt Jones subverts expectations set by the familiar-sounding verses that precede it, with a heady almost seductive range of harmonic progressions.

The first few chords (I’ve no idea what chords they are, so I won’t even try to describe them) take us on an entirely different path, each line of the carol’s conclusion the aural equivalent of biting into salted caramel. All decorated with a simple descant that climbs and climbs until it disappears into the darkness.

Voces 8’s precision execution of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ writing transports this carol from the usual combination of heavy organ and sluggish congregation into something stylish and sophisticated.

Balulalow / Ceremony of Carols / Benjamin Britten

My first introduction to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (1942) was singing This Little Babe during a school carol service in the early 1980s. The antiphonal fireworks in the three part round was an electrifying experience in Suffolk’s St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Britten’s musical language seemed stark and awkward in comparison to the melancholy burned into the more familiar congregational carols.

But it’s Balulalow which speaks to me more now thirty five years later. It’s relentless shift from major to minor chords throughout the carol gives this lullaby a dark restless feel (though others regard this as the characteristics of a love song – I’m not quite so sure). This isn’t a saccharin depiction of Christ’s first night in the cot – a happy ending. There’s menace in Britten’s use of the chord progressions which gives things a sense that life will be hard-fought.

And I particularly like the fragility of Britten’s original recording. The boy treble sounds as though it might shatter during the opening verse. There’s a sense of reassurance when the boys choir joins in, but still that threat of danger remains. It’s Christmas music that gives Christmas a hard edge.

Illuminare, Jerusalem / Judith Weir

I stumbled on Illuminare, Jerusalem one Christmas Eve a couple of years ago listening to Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The late Stephen Cleobury then Director of Music at Kings College commissioned Weir to write the piece for FONLC for the 1985 Christmas Eve service (there’s a video of Weir reflecting on an archive recording of the premiere).

It’s mysterious other-worldiness crafted by a melody that seems to crawl over the words and tracked by an underlying melodic line, paints remarkableness of the Christmas story in a multitude of brilliant and arresting colours. There’s a human quality to the uneven lengths of the phrases too, tidily resolved by the ‘Jerusalem’ phrase repeated throughout. Modest and efficient writing.

Bethlehem Down / Peter Warlock / King Singers

I’ve always loved Warlock’s music. The Capriol Suite is an obvious starting point, brimming with ‘English-sounding’ modes that evoke Sunday lunch roasts, bracing walks in the Fens, and a roaring log fire on return. Where Britten’s music evokes the bruised skies and plump ploughed fields of East Suffolk, Warlock’s scores seems to compensate for the lack of contours in the West Suffollk. Music that fills in the gaps left by nature.

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