Chris Morley reveals how the Christmas season has inspired composers down the centuries.
Music and Christmas have a very special relationship going back almost two millennia, and the season is unthinkable without the well-loved carols linking us with the devotions and celebrations of centuries long past.
It is remarkable that many contemporary composers are still producing additions to the genre: perhaps John Tavener’s The Lamb, written during one single afternoon in 1982 for his nephew’s third birthday, is the best-known example.
And some of the finest popular songs are born of the festive period: White Christmas, the sentimental but cosy Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Chris Rea’s chord-striking Driving Home for Christmas, and so many more. Add to those the songs that chime in with the general snowy mood – Winter Wonderland, Leroy Anderson’s elegant Sleigh Ride (not strictly a song), and the rest – and you have a rich sackful of joyful plums.
The thought of sleigh-rides of course evokes the troika from Prokofiev’s score for the film Lieutenant Kije, nothing actually to do with Christmas, but an essential item in many an orchestra’s seasonal programmes.
Classical composers have more than done their bit in the provision of Christmas repertoire for the concert-hall, opera-house and church. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah are the two biggies that immediately spring to mind, along with Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ.
One of the most Christmassy parts of Messiah is the lovely Pastoral Symphony depicting the shepherds serenely watching their flocks by night, little knowing they are about to be descended upon by angels in all their glory.
Handel entitles this instrumental movement Pifa – “piping music” – and it is indeed exactly as it says on the tin. The music depicts the gentle piping of the shepherds over a musette-like drone bass, much like soft-toned bagpiping (readers may remember the Eastern European gentleman who used to busk on Centenary Bridge just outside Birmingham’s Paradise Forum a couple of years back).
The rhythms rock peacefully backwards and forwards, and the whole effect is redolent of the bagpipers who to this day come down from the mountains in central Italy to busk in the big conurbations on the plains.
And Handel obviously mirrored what one of his great role-models, Arcangelo Corelli, had already written in 1712 as part of the set of concerti grossi for string orchestra he published as his Opus 6.
The eighth of these he subtitled fatto per la notte di Natale (made for Christmas night), a piece we now know as the Christmas Concerto.
The chain goes back even further, to 1709, when the confusingly-named Giuseppe Torelli published a set of 12 concerti grossi, of which the sixth is announced as un pastorale per il Santissimo Natale (pastoral for the Most Holy Christmas): and the word “pastoral” itself refers to shepherds caring for their sheep.
In the theatre, of course, we have Puccini’s La Boheme, whose first two acts depict Christmas Eve both indoors and outdoors in 1830s Paris, and Tchaikovsky’s glorious Nutcracker ballet. There is also Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Christmas Eve.
Bordering on the world of theatre, we could even include Wagner’s exquisite Siegfried Idyll, first performed on the staircase outside his wife Cosima’s bedroom on Christmas Day, 1870, her 33rd birthday.
Hans Richter, later to become conductor of the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival (including the premiere of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius), taught himself to play the trumpet especially for the occasion – as did the son of a very dear friend of mine when I conducted a surprise performance of the Idyll in a little Devonshire village last year to celebrate her 60th birthday.
And the tinkling, snowflake glitter at the end of Glazunov’s delicious score for the ballet The Seasons surely evokes a privileged Christmas nearing the end of Russia’s Tsardom before the 1917 Revolution.
English composers have done Christmas proud, Britten in particular. His audience-participation cantata St Nicolas comes immediately to mind, and there are the austere beauties of A Boy was Born and A Hymn to the Virgin. And there is, too, the compelling A Ceremony of Carols, composed at a honky-tonk canteen piano onboard a neutral Swedish cargo-ship crossing the Atlantic during the Second World War as Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, made their journey home to Britain after several years’ self-imposed exile in the United States. A Hymn to Saint Cecilia was composed on the same voyage.
Ralph Vaughan Williams did his bit, with the masque On Christmas Night, the nativity play The First Nowell written at the very end of his long life, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and, another late work, the cantata Hodie.
Elgar’s contributions to the Christmas panorama are more restricted: his setting of The First Nowell in his incidental music to Algernon Blackwood’s children’s play The Starlight Express, and his poignant treatment of the medieval French melody to The Holly and the Ivy, written for the Worcester Philharmonic Society, rediscovered by Moseley musician Sue Savage in a Bewdley junkshop in the 1970s, and given its first performance in modern times at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 2005, are the only examples which come immediately to mind.
Successor-but-one to Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University, Victor Hely-Hutchinson, gave the world his clever and touching A Carol Symphony, once a regular on BBC Radio at Christmastime, later resuscitated as the incidental music to BBC Television’s serialisation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, and nowadays well-deserving of hearings from at least amateur orchestral societies at this time of the year.
Finally three comparative rarities which really evoke this special period, beginning with Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych for small orchestra, of which the central panel is The Journey of the Magi. This magical movement ends with an ancient Italian Christmas lullaby Tu scendi dalle stelle, O Re del Cielo (You come down from the stars, O King of Heaven) – those pastoral bagpipers again. A similar mood is evoked by the endearing Christmas Mass by the 18th-century Czech composer Jakub Ryba (you can find it on the bargain-price Naxos label).
But the composition I would really urge everyone to try is Une Cantate de Noel by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, written during the early 1950s as he was already dying from heart disease, and bursting with cries from the depths which are eventually comforted by angelic children’s voices and a joyous amalgam of Christmas carols from a multi-rhythmic choir and orchestra.
The work is macaronic (more than one language – Britten sometimes used the same technique), and, as one would expect in Switzerland, there are passages in Latin (representing Italian), French and German. It ends with a glorious chorale of trumpet and children riding over the ChorFest below, and its impact is utterly irresistible.
I first encountered it as a first-year undergraduate singing in the Birmingham University Choir along with the University Symphony Orchestra at the end of the Christmas term in 1966. The incomparable Anthony Lewis was the conductor, and the baritone soloist was Beresford King-Smith, now honorary archivist of the CBSO.