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The music that makes Christmas Cancelled services won't silence the singing

Being a chorister is the finest way to get Christian liturgy into your bones. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Being a chorister is the finest way to get Christian liturgy into your bones. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


December 25, 2020   6 mins

In April I wrote about the prospect of Easter 2020 being an Easter unlike any other. As I said then, with the churches shut and services either cancelled or live-streamed from empty buildings, people were going to have to find their own places for contemplation. Now, unfathomable though it might have seemed back in April, most of the UK is once again in total or near lockdown.

Not only have many of the churches remained closed, but unlike Giles Fraser’s, many — it is now clear — will not be reopening. Church administrators have used the opportunity that the Covid crisis has presented to do some of the things they had wanted to do anyway. My own family’s church, where worship had been continual for some 900 years, was closed by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster during this crisis: the choir dissolved, the congregation disbanded and all future services cancelled.

As it happens, St Margaret’s Westminster was the church in which I sang as a chorister, and as everyone else who has been through that experience will know, singing in a choir is not only one of the best ways to learn music but one of the finest ways for the liturgy and fabric of the Church to get into your bones.

Although Easter may be the most important festival for Christians, today’s feast is the most significant for cultural Christians. For many, the Christmas service was the only time in the year that they would go through the doors of their local church. Midnight Mass, or the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, would suddenly be filled with people who the church hadn’t seen for a year. And in a way that makes the absence of services and carol singing this year even sadder still. People who were only holding on to the church by a thread risk having that last thread frayed as well.

So I thought that, as at Easter, I would list some of the musical moments that always made Christmas special for me. I have — you might note — avoided all the most obvious ones. Anyone can find “Hark the Herald”, “O come, all ye faithful” and company on Spotify or YouTube. For many of us the beginning of Christmas was always the first notes of “Once in Royal David’s City” floating through the church, with the congregation and choir holding their cold breath in the hope that the chorister soloist wouldn’t go wrong.

But, as I say, you can find these easily. The selection below doesn’t include any rarities, but it includes music that shows that the Christmas music tradition is an ancient and very much a living thing. Even as we close a year in which singing has been made impossible.

At Easter I pointed readers to the classic Mengelberg recording of the St Matthew Passion. And I’ll start with Bach again, because he actually did write something for every season. The Christmas Oratorio was written for the Christmas period of 1734 for Bach’s church in Leipzig. There are a number of wonderful performances online. John Eliot Gardiner’s, from the Herderkirche in Weimar may be one of the cleanest musically. But this performance recorded in the 1980s, led by the great Nikolaus Harnoncourt, takes some beating. Not just the performance, but the fact that the setting and some of the performers look as though Bach would have recognised them.

 

Though it seems strange to imagine now, Bach was of course only adding to a musical tradition that was already rich when he found it. Every country in Europe had carols and anthems written for the season, some of which sound as though they reach back even further than they do. One of my personal favourites is the carol today known as ‘The Coventry Carol’. Probably dating from some time in the 1500s, its haunting open fifths give it exactly the sound of a sparse, wintry monastery. They are perfect for this verse in particular:

‘Herod the king in his raging
Set forth upon this day
By his decree, no life spare thee
All children young to slay’

This recording is from King’s College Cambridge, led by Stephen Cleobury (who died just over a year ago). For many people the sound of King’s is the sound of Christmas, so I make no apology for the number of selections here which rely on them. There are plenty of other recordings to find online but few ever beat the sound of King’s.

 

‘The Coventry Carol’ sounds as though it has been around forever — partly because it almost has — but occasionally a piece sounds that way despite being relatively new. The words of ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ are 18th Century, but Elizabeth Poston wrote her setting in the early 20th. And it sounds as though it has been around for an age; one of those musical ideas that a composer seems to have found floating around the ether just waiting to be caught. As well as the beauty and naturalness of the melody and harmony, the almost shocking words make this piece so memorable. Lines like “For happiness I long have sought, / And pleasure dearly I have bought” sound like they should have no place in a carol, let alone “It keeps my dying faith alive.” Yet here they are, and once again perfectly sung by King’s.

 

There are a number of settings of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, but two jostle for the lead. Gustav Holst’s is near impossible to beat, but Harold Darke’s does it.  It is a choral favourite, not least because it gives one of the tenors a verse in which to show off. But it is a stony-hearted person who can listen to all four verses and not be moved by the simplicity and beauty of the final verse, “What can I give Him, poor as I am?”.

 

One of the wonderful things about Christmas music is that it doesn’t just rely on major pieces by major composers.  Strange pieces have made it into the repertoire, sometimes by strange composers. None is stranger than Peter Warlock (real name Philip Heseltine), who as well as being one of the most innovative figures in early twentieth century British music was also among the most infamous. Perhaps best known today for the Capriol Suite, some of his music – such as the song-cycle “The Curlew” — is as dark as he was.  In a strange act of posthumous outing the art historian Brian Sewell earlier this decade revealed in his memoirs that Heseltine was his biological father.

Heseltine left other strange gifts to posterity, including a couple of pieces which are firmly established in the Christmas repertoire. Curate’s egg though he was, Heseltine’s setting of ‘Bethlehem Down’ is one of the most knotty, satisfying and moving Christmas pieces I know:

 

Of course like any tradition that aspires to live, a repertoire must continue to be added to if it is to continue. In regular times church choirs in the English-speaking world have been careful to keep commissioning where they can. Like all new-music commissions, this is a hit and miss affair, with many first performances also being the last. But occasionally a piece settles above the water-line and grows a life of its own.

The American composer Morten Lauridsen is easy to be slightly snotty about. Some of his harmonies and clusters sound like the spillage from composers that have gone before him. But his setting of “O Magnum Mysterium” (“Oh great mystery”) is deeply affecting. It has entered the repertoire party because it is so wonderful to listen to, but also because unlike a lot of modern church music it is as enjoyable from the inside, to sing, as it is from the outside to listen to.

 

One final addition to the repertoire. Eric Whitacre is a composer who it’s even easier to be sniffy about than Lauridsen. Many of his pieces seem to be second-presses from earlier composers. But occasionally even a comparatively minor composer (as with Warlock) hits on an absolutely first-rate idea. Whitacre did with his piece ‘Lux Aurumque’, which although just over ten years old has already settled into the repertoire.

I first heard it when it was performed by King’s earlier this decade, and here the composer seems to have written something perfectly suited to the acoustic of a vaulted cathedral or Chapel building. The soaring solo treble line is a spine-tingler if ever there was one. And the arrival of this piece is a reminder that the Christmas music tradition is a living one, that will live again.

 

Finally, a great Christmas service always sees the congregation played out with a great, thundering organ voluntary. As a chorister I was lucky enough to hear Thomas Trotter — one of the greatest living organists – every Sunday. One of the few bright spots this year was Trotter being awarded the Queen’s Medal for music in November. Among other things I owe him my early acquaintance with a composer who continues to give me more joy than almost any other, Olivier Messiaen.

A lot of people find Messiaen hard-going to begin with. Once you get used to his musical language it all makes perfect sense, but perhaps like learning new languages it is best to learn it early. I still listen to the whole of his organ cycle ‘La NativitĂ© du Seigneur’ each year as I put up the Christmas decorations. One thing that is so remarkable about this 1935 piece is the restraint and pacing. Throughout the full cycle it bursts out only a couple of times.

But the greatest and most famous eruption is in the final movement — ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ — when a toccata suddenly appears, sounding as though the composer could no longer hold back his joy at “God [being] among us”. There are some magnificent recordings online, including Trotter and also the extraordinary Naji Hakim playing on the organ of Messiaen’s own church. But perhaps this performance by the great Gillian Weir is best.

 

It’ll play me out. Happy Christmas!


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.

DouglasKMurray

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Thank you Douglas, for this and so many other great pieces this year, not to mention your appearances with Bret Weinstein, Michael Malice and others. Nobody understands and describes the ongoing collapse of the western mind in quite the way that you do.

There are some great tips here, and I’m delighted to know that you like Messiaen, whose Quartet For The End Of Time (I think that’s the correct title) is one of my favourite pieces of music – a masterpiece of anticipation and release not unlike Wayne Rooney’s free kick goal against Norwich City earlier this season.

The piece that I play endlessly at this time of year, always in the background when hosting, is Mozart’s Grand Partita, KVK 361. It is not a Christmas piece, but it always feels very Christmassy to me and everyone else.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Love thy neighbor.

Wear a mask.

Merry Christmas.

Paul Davies
Paul Davies
3 years ago

Thankyou Douglas. You have once again given support to my belief that you are one of the commentators I most admire in this day and age. If you like choir and organ you should try David Briggs, Stephen Layton and the Trinity College Choir Mass for Notre Dame. Totally ethereal.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
3 years ago

I fear that once Churches are allowed to re -open, the fall in numbers attending Church will be huge. Some people will forever feel frightened of being in close company with relative strangers. The lockdown will have blessed them with life-long OCD or other anxiety disorder. But another portion will have received a message form the Church itself, that physical attendance is not that important. For example in the Catholic Church attendance at Sunday Mass and on Holy Days of Obligation is compulsory. For the last 9 months however Catholics have been told it isn’t. They have been invited to be spectators at a TV event. A message has been sent about how the Church itself regards the Mass. They should not be surprised if they never see attendance very much reduced.

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago

In the true spirit of Christmas, thanks to Douglas Murray for his fine piece. It will probably never happen again, such are his views, but I offer it gladly today.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago

The Coventry Carol had me in tears. So beautiful. There is something about medieval music that always gets me! As for Messiaen, I’m afraid I don’t share your love for his organ works. Give me some Buxtehude any day of the week; BuxWV218 ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ is particularly haunting, joyful, and epic all at the same time.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Apropos of Buxtehude, back in the late 1980s somebody (I think it was The independent when it was still a credible organ (excuse the pun)) ran a competition in which entrants wrote a short biography of a famous person, deliberately downplaying their achievements or damning them with faint praise. Somebody sent in a great entry for Bach, the killer line in which was ‘His technique as an organist was said to rival that of Buxtehude’.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Haha. Well, without him we wouldn’t have had Bach, so I think he must be celebrated for his teaching as well as his own work!

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago

I’m a little bored with carols by now, but God bless you, Douglas, for leading me to the splendid Messaien recording.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
3 years ago

Wonderful piece as a chorister who has sung many of these pieces to have them placed before me whilst away is much appreciated.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago

This piece may not be in the same category musically as some of those mentioned here, but it nonetheless moved me and others I told of it: The London African Gospel Choir singing Claudius Afolabi Siffre’s “Something inside so strong” for Julian Assange in front of Belmarsh prison last night, Christmas Eve. On Youtube.

vladmoss
vladmoss
3 years ago

Dear Mr. Murray, I am in the middle of reading your wonderful book, “The Madness of Crowds”. I would dearly love to get in touch with you by e-mail. Please contact me.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  vladmoss

Try contacting him via his publisher.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  vladmoss

He has a website, douglasmurray dot net, with a page labelled ‘Contact’ via which you can apparently do just that.

vladmoss
vladmoss
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

Thanks, Mr. Perkins. I’ve just written to him there.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago

This

andy young
andy young
3 years ago

I. f*****g. HATE. Darke’s twee, syrupy perversion of In The Bleak Midwinter. Completely destroys the meaning, the feeling the words generate. It’s Holst every time, by a country mile.
The rest I wouldn’t quarrel with, though I’ve heard pieces of Messiaen I prefer; this seems to descend into muddle too often to my ear (which will be different to others of course). He does convey the majesty & mystery of religious experience in an unparalleled way, only equalled by the great masters such as Bach.

David Bennett
David Bennett
3 years ago

Ambience!

anneclarke255
anneclarke255
3 years ago

This is such a lovely piece, Douglas. Thank you so much.

James Wilson
James Wilson
3 years ago

Although not generally a churchgoer myself, I lament very greatly the savage attitude of the current political, scientific and (let us be clear) health authorities, under the dubious excuse of a not especially deadly respiratory virus, towards the rights of churches and churchgoers to choose to continue to practice their faith in whatever manner they see fit, exercising their own judgment as to whether they wish to take the alleged risk of “disablement or death by covid.”

The simple question constantly evaded and ignored by all the authorities, both scientific/health and government, is as we by clear official admission have an epidemic that only has serious consequences on a very small minority of anyone but older or already seriously debilitated people, why are we not simply taking measures to protect the old and vulnerable, and letting everybody else get on with their life as normal?

This simple question needs to be asked over and over until the faces of those in authority turn red with shame and embarrassment, as I am 100% certain after studying all the evidence for 9 months or more now, that those authorities have absolutely no satisfactory answers to this question.

My own personal guess at to the real reasons this is being done are firstly, because those in and around government are likely to get very rich thereby due to their official or unofficial links with the vaccine and other healthcare providers; and secondly, governments are happy all round the world to use this allegedly unusually deadly pandemic as an excuse to exercise far more control over their populations, especially in regard of trying to shut down the (prior to lockdown) ever increasing protests against social and economic inequality, as the gap between rich and poor has got to such epic proportions, and shows every sign of getting worse, such that even in advanced Western nations like Britain, the children of even middle class professionals have difficulty getting on the housing ladder, and finding well paid jobs and opportunities, such that they can live a “normal” independent life.

alexfrostisawanker
alexfrostisawanker
3 years ago

Yes, I always preferred the Darke version to Holst’s although I like both.

Recently I have been listening to Polish carols, kolÄℱdy, as there is a staggering number and some of them are exquisite such as LulajĂ…ÂŒe Jezuniu. They should be much better known in Western Europe and elsewhere.

Mike Todd
Mike Todd
3 years ago

yeah nice one