December 25, 2020

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 Nativité 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!

Join the discussion


  • January 6, 2021
    Yes, I always preferred the Darke version to Holst's although I like both. Recently I have been listening to Polish carols, kolędy, as there is a staggering number and some of them are exquisite such as Lulajże Jezuniu. They should be much better known in Western Europe and elsewhere. Read more

  • January 1, 2021
    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... Read more

  • December 28, 2020
    This is such a lovely piece, Douglas. Thank you so much. Read more

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