LONDON – Every Christmas Eve, British composer Cecilia McDowall follows a similar routine.
At 3 p.m., when family members arrived at her London home, she went into the kitchen, turned on the radio and started Christmas Pudding cake – a slow-cooked, wine-soaked English dessert – while listening to the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, perform Festival of Nine Lessons and Carol.
The Christmas music and Bible reading service is one of Britain’s most famous carnival traditions, broadcast live on radio stations around the world, to around 450 people in the United States. A choir spokesman estimated that 100 million listeners would tune in.
But this year, McDowall won’t be in the kitchen. Instead, she’ll sit in King’s College’s huge Gothic chapel, listening as the choir perform “There Is No Rose,” a carol she wrote specifically for the event.
“It’s really something important,” McDowall said of the committee. “It must be people who have heard my music once.”
Since the early 1980s, when the King’s College Choir began ordering new works for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carol, prominent religious composers such as John Tavener and Arvo Part wrote for it, as well as more surprising names like Harrison Birtwistle, an English composer with vibrant modern works.
King’s isn’t alone in trying to bring new carols, or at least new settings to old texts, into its Christmas repertoire. McDowall says she’s written 10 carols since the 1980s, starting with a piece for the school choir. This year, in addition to the King’s commission, she wrote a context of “In Dulci Jubilo” for the choir of Wells Cathedral in south-west England.
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John Rutter, an outstanding British composer of Christmas music, said in a phone interview that this year he’s also written two new carols: a poem by William Blake for a cancer charity’s carol concert, and another. another for the Merton College Choir, Oxford.
Carol writing for the choir is a vibrant art form, Rutter said, adding that “no form of music can become a museum where you just listen to the songs of the dead.” New compositions run the gamut from “something you can sing in a pub” to “subtle and elegant compositions,” like McDowall’s, he added.
Andrew Gant, author of a book about history of Christmas carols. Music for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, for example,” dates back to 1840, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote the tune to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the printing press. Mendelssohn insisted the tune was never used for religious purposes, Gant said, but 15 years later, William Cummings, a British organist, took the tune and added lyrics from a Methodist hymn .
Many carols “were a series of happy accidents” as such, Gant said, adding that it was only in Victorian times that British composers began to write carols specifically for Christmas.
McDowall said King’s College choir music director Daniel Hyde asked her piece to provide “a moment of stillness” during the performance and asked her to keep it simple, school room Choir members fell ill at the last minute and new singers were brought in.
Last December, The choir has been hit by a coronavirus outbreak during preparations for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carol, then decided to cancel the live broadcast altogether as Britain fell into another stalemate.
Hyde’s requests for an uncomplicated carol, she said, helped keep McDowall focused, and the music came in as soon as she found the words she wanted to use — a 15th-century hymn recounts the verse. story of the birth of Jesus. McDowall said she sang background of “No Roses” by Benjamin Britten as a child and also admire a version of John Joubert. She submitted the work in September.
McDowall said she didn’t think her track would compete with much-loved Christmas songs like “Once in Royal David’s City,” which opens in the King’s service every year. “If any composer is going to be intimidated by the fact that there are other carols in the same line, it gets in the way,” she said.
Bob Chilcott, co-editor of “Carols for Choirs“- a famous compendium of Christmas music, first published in 1961 by Oxford University Press and regularly updated since then- said” there was a tremendous amount of energy. to write new carols” in the UK for the past 20 years. Chilcott is in the process of selecting 50 new works for the next volume of “Carols for Choirs”, which is due to be published in 2023. It may include contributions from contemporary composers such as Caroline Shaw, he say.
Most composers, he said, have one of two approaches. The first is meditation, “which may involve talking about the quiet of the night, and the child sleeping in the curator.” Second is excitement. “It’s all about shepherds’ joy and ‘Glory to God most,’ he said. Most composers also try to “write a good tune,” adds Chilcott.
Rutter, who wrote a new carol for the King in 1987, credits his success with carols such as “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “What Sweeter Music” – both sung in houses Worshipers around the English-speaking world – because of their memorable tunes, they seem to have been around for hundreds of years. He is “50% composer and 50% musician,” he said.
Hyde said McDowall’s “There Is No Rose” focuses on “a beautiful cluster” of notes that “hover, like a frozen frame,” before breaking into a melody. “The last thing you’ll hear is the initial cluster we started, echoing through space,” he added. “I hope people will be touched by it.”
But McDowall didn’t want to say anything more than Hyde. The choir prefers to keep the details private and doesn’t let any recordings of the piece appear until it’s aired – at which point McDowall should go home with a Christmas pudding in wait.