This is a continuation of part 1, which you may prefer to read first.
I’ve written carols for most of my life, but the first one of mine to take off (and still my most often-performed carol I think) was called Scots Nativity. Here’s one of the best of the many performances on YouTube. I wrote this in two versions, upper voices in two parts, and SATB, and, a few years later, an SAB version for an OUP Voiceworks collection. I’ve also arranged it as a solo song, and it has also been published in Swedish. I’ve often wondered why this carol is sung more often than some of my others, and I think it must be due to the traditional Scottish words, and the folk-song-like character of the tune, with its lilting melody and ‘scotch snap’ rhythms. (The tune is by me: it’s not a traditional folksong, by the way). Although I’m not Scottish, my wife Jan comes from Scotland and we often go there, and I think I assimilated something of the atmosphere, even though I wrote some of it sitting on a wall outside Ely Cathedral on a sunny day!
A few years later, I wrote a very different carol – lively and rhythmic, though with calm and reflective mood changes. This one is called Glory to the Christ Child. Here’s a nice bright and lively YouTube performance. I remember that I wrote three alternative endings and spread them out in the sun at an Association of British Choral Directors conference, and my OUP editors decided which one to choose! They made the right choice: and I was lucky enough for Stephen Cleobury to pick it up and perform it at the Kings College Cambridge Nine Lessons and Carols for two years in succession. This carol is unaccompanied, and a more complex sing than Scots Nativity, but it’s not really difficult and it’s been sung by lots of choirs and recorded several times.
I think these two are the ones that have been sung most often – but there are many more! Christmas is such a special time of the year, and it’s great to really try to not only respond to different types for performance situations – church services, carol services, carol concerts, etc, and also to different types of performers from the experienced to the less experienced. But also, the Christmas story itself has so many facets, and poets from mediaeval times to the present day have responded to its universal message in so many different ways. In the preface to the OUP collection Alan Bullard Carols, .I said of the texts: ‘Joy, mystery, wonder, and nostalgia are all to be found in these verses, as we marvel at the strange events, difficult journeys, and persecutions linked to that miraculous birth so many years ago.’
I recently revisited some of the carols in this collection, which was published five years ago A new recording of And can this newborn mystery (by the BYU Singers) reminded me of the strength of Brian Wren’s poem, and of the doubts, the searching and questing, that many Christians share today. I met Brian Wren, a retired minister now living in the USA, at a ‘Free to Believe’ conference where I had been booked to play the hymns, and asked him if he had written anything that needed a new tune! He gave me the poem, and we sung a hymn-tune version at the conference which I then turned into this longer carol. The final lines are ‘And so, with doubt and hope reborn, or anxious certainty, or peace, We worship, trust, and rise to serve An infant learning how to feed’ and I hope that my setting communicates that sense of ‘anxious certainty’ but also of ‘peace’.
Another setting of a modern text is my Hillside Carol, also in Alan Bullard Carols. The poem is by Clive Samson, and here we are on the bleak and frosty hills with the shepherds, the peaceful night suddenly interrupted by a bright star and a heavenly message of God on earth, and the final calm as ‘Our loves, our hopes, ourselves We give to your son’. In this setting I’ve used an (optional) treble recorder or flute, as well as organ or piano. This carol, and several others, was recently recorded by The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, for release in early Summer 2015.
One of my more recent carols was commissioned by Michael Simmonds for the choir of Rochester Cathedral, director Scott Farrell, and first performed there last Christmas. Merrily did the Shepherds Blow / Benedicamus Domino combines Latin with English and contrasts the bright and lively singing and piping of the shepherds with a calm central Nativity scene, returning to joyful harmony, syncopated rhythm and an opportunity to show off the power and colour of the organ in a rip-roaring conclusion! Here’s a recording.
I sometimes get asked ‘Have you written anything else like Scots Nativity?’ or even ‘Could you write us something like Scots Nativity?’. Well, composers don’t usually like to repeat themselves (intentionally, anyway), but I have sometimes tried to re-create that character and mood. One carol that does this is The Gracious Gift (in Alan Bullard Carols) – a cradle song, it sets a rather similar text to Scots Nativity (possibly by the same authors), but it is for SATB unaccompanied, and, I hope, not just a carbon copy. And at the moment I’m writing a new carol that might fit in that category – but as it’s a commission I can’t tell you about that yet! Ultimately, though, I like to try to find different angles on the many-faceted Christmas story.
I think I’ve said enough for today, but I think there will be more. All of the above carols are available from OUP, with the exception of Merrily did the Shepherds Blow (available direct from me). And there are recordings of many of them on the OUP website too.