LONDON – Every Christmas Eve, British composer Cecilia McDowall follows the same routine.
At 3 p.m., as family members arrive at her home in London, she goes into the kitchen, turns on the radio, and begins making Christmas pudding – a stewed, alcohol-soaked British dessert – while listening to the choir. from King’s College, Cambridge, presents its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
This Bible readings and Christmas music service is one of Britain’s best-known holiday traditions, broadcast live on radio stations around the world, including around 450 in the United States. A spokesperson for the choir estimated that 100 million listeners would go online.
But this year McDowall won’t be in the kitchen. Instead, she’ll be seated in King’s College’s sprawling Gothic Chapel, listening to the choir perform “There Is No Rose,” a Christmas carol she wrote especially for the event.
âThis is really something big,â McDowall said of the commission. âIt must be the most people who have ever heard my music at one time. “
Since the early 1980s, when the King’s College Choir began commissioning new works for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, notable religious music composers like John Tavener and Arvo PÃ¤rt have written for him, along with names more surprising like Harrison Birtwistle, a British composer of cutting-edge modernist pieces.
King’s is far from alone in trying to introduce new Christmas carols, or at least new musical settings of old texts, into the Christmas repertoire. McDowall said she has written 10 Christmas carols since the 1980s, starting with a piece for a school choir. This year, in addition to the King’s commission, she wrote a musical setting of âIn Dulci Jubiloâ for the Wells Cathedral Choir in South West England.
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John Rutter, a prolific British Christmas music composer, said in a telephone interview that he also wrote two new Christmas carols this year: a setting to music of a William Blake poem for a carol concert for cancer charity, and another for the Choir of Merton College, Oxford.
Carol, writing for choirs was a dynamic art form, said Rutter, adding that “no form of music can afford to be a museum where you only listen to the songs of the dead.” The new works range from “something you could sing about in the pub” to “fancy and elegant compositions,” like McDowall’s, he added.
Andrew Gant, author of a book on the history of Christmas carols, said that some, like “The Holly and the Ivy”, are folk songs from before written records, but many have origins. surprisingly recent, a long way from the holiday season. . The music of âHark! The Herald Angels Sing â, for example, dates back to 1840, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote the melody to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press. Mendelssohn insisted the melody should never be used for religious purposes, Gant said, but 15 years later William Cummings, a British organist, picked up the tune and added lyrics from a Methodist hymn.
Many Christmas carols “are a series of happy accidents” like this one, Gant said, adding that it was not until the Victorian era that British composers began to write Christmas carols specifically for Christmas services.
McDowall said King’s College choir musical director Daniel Hyde asked for his piece to provide a “quiet moment” in the service, and asked him to keep it simple, in case the choir fell. sick at the last minute and new singers would have to be brought in.
Last December, the choir had a coronavirus outbreak in the run-up to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, then decided to cancel its live broadcast entirely as Britain plunged into yet another lockdown.
Hyde’s requests for a simple Christmas carol actually helped McDowall focus, she said, and the music came shortly after she found the words she wanted to use – an anthem. 15th century which tells the story of the birth of Jesus. McDowall said she sang an adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s “There Is No Rose” as a child and also admired a version of John Joubert. She submitted the piece in September.
McDowall said she doesn’t think about her Christmas carol competing with popular Christmas carols like âOnce in Royal David’s City,â which opens the King’s Service each year. âIf a songwriter was intimidated that there are other Christmas carols along the same lines, it would only get in the way,â she said.
Bob Chilcott, co-editor of “Carols for Choirs” – a well-known collection of Christmas music, first published in 1961 by Oxford University Press and regularly updated since – said there had been “a tremendous energy to write new Christmas carols “in Britain over the past 20 years. Chilcott is in the process of selecting 50 new pieces for the next volume of âCarols for Choirs,â scheduled for publication in 2023. It could include contributions from contemporary composers like Caroline Shaw, he said.
Most composers take one of two approaches, he said. The first is meditative, “perhaps speaking of the stillness of the night and the sleeping baby in the nursery”. The second is euphoric. âIt is about the shepherd’s joy and ‘Glory to God in the highest heavens,’â ââhe said. Most composers also try to “write a good tune,” Chilcott added.
Rutter, who wrote a new song for the King’s Service in 1987, said his success with chants like “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “What Sweeter Music” – both sung in churches across the English-speaking world – was due to their memorable melodies. , which seemed to have existed for hundreds of years. He was “50% composer and 50% songwriter,” he said.
Hyde said that McDowall’s âThere Is No Roseâ centers around âa beautiful bunchâ of notes that âhover, like a freeze frame,â before unfolding into a tune. âThe last thing you will hear is the original cluster we started with, resonating in space,â he added. “I hope people will be moved by this.”
But McDowall didn’t want to say more than Hyde. The choir likes to keep details a secret and won’t let any recordings of the play emerge before it airs – at which point McDowall is expected to go home for a pending Christmas pudding.