I’m dreaming of a white…carol-book

Going from being the centre of attention on the podium, everyone’s breath waiting on your slightest movement, to once more being just another small box in the corner of someone’s screen, is bruising for the usually well-nourished conducting ego. After a precious couple of months back in action this Autumn, November’s supplementary lockdown heralded a return to the awkward arranged marriage of choral rehearsal and video-conferencing software. In leading online sessions for the non-professional choirs I work with, I have been forced into a much deeper relationship with my trusty white volume of carols than I had hitherto considered possible.

In normal circumstances, I try to avoid working on carols more than a couple of weeks before Advent. I know only too well, from my time as a singer, the loss of Christmassy magic that can accompany one’s thirtieth rendition of ‘O come all ye faithful’ during the season (perhaps especially as an alto droning away somewhere in the vicinity of middle C). However, with the short lead time involved, and with music hire companies in much more limited operation, we have been forced to turn to music which everyone would have to hand, and this has meant returning once again to the august OUP collection 100 Carols for Choirs.

We’ve now spent a few weeks mining deep in the rich seams of its (mostly) accessible and festive carol arrangements, taking two or three at a time and merrily bashing our way through them on Zoom. It’s caused me to take a closer look at a volume of which I had thought I had intimate knowledge. One happy by-product has been the discovery of some interesting things I had previously passed over – but it’s also true that its very popularity has led to a certain homogenising of the choral music of Christmas.

In a dim corner of my mind, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Javanese gamelan, where we learned that the once-multifarious regional styles of gamelan music rapidly homogenised in response to the availability of recordings of prestigious ensembles. The dissemination of the recordings led to imitation of the most admired ensembles, so that the peculiar regional differences were gradually ironed out.

It’s not a huge leap to say that a volume with the reach of Carols for Choirs has done the same. Take those Willcocks descants, for example. They are pretty uniformly excellent, tastefully yet dramatically reharmonising the tunes and providing a satisfying conclusion to the congregational carols. However, most are now so universally well-known and well-beloved that their inclusion has become de rigeur. The choirmaster who attempts to introduce different descants is greeted with a chorus of moans from choristers for whom a chord of B half-diminished is the authentic sound of their childhood Christmas. (This is despite the best efforts of OUP, who included a number of new descants in 2011’s Carols for Choirs 5.)

It’s also true that the CFC series has heaped another mound of earth on the idea of carols as belong to any season other than Christmas, despite the token inclusion in 100 CFC of one or two Easter carols. The once-popular Easter Carol Service is now more likely a service of Easter readings and anthems, depriving the Easter season of the fertile interplay between secular and sacred that manifests in carol services during Advent and Christmas.

Contemporary carol composition has also had a hand in taking the genre further from its dance-music roots. We’re rather more likely to hear a delicately-harmonised andante such as Rutter’s Cradle Song than something rambunctious in the model of Willcocks’ Angelus ad virginem or Sussex Carol. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s nice to have both presented side-by-side, giving us options for balance – especially as we’re just as likely these days to use the volume as the anchor of a festive concert programme as the backbone of a church carol service.

Internet choral celebrity Patrick Allies recently took to Twitter to lampoon the way 100 Carols is generally used. It’s a book of two halves; half the ones that everyone does every year, and the half of pieces that still languish in obscurity. Part of this is probably the gamelan effect of choirs such as that of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcasting the ‘authoritative’ carol interpretations and arrangements annually on Christmas Eve.

Knowing that I might otherwise drive myself mad spending two months on carols, I’ve been using the opportunity to take a couple of choirs on excursions around the corners of the volume I knew less well. Willcocks and Rutter took full advantage of editor’s privilege, with the result that just under half of the pieces in 100 CFC are composed or arranged by Willcocks, and a further quarter by Rutter, the unquestioned King of Christmas. There are some real gems: Willcocks tends to arrange traditional carols from various countries, while Rutter prefers to employ the Christmassy Word Randomiser(TM), generating heart-warming texts by assembling ‘stable’, ‘babe’, ‘light’ etc in various combinations. The editors’ achievement is in compiling a very complete and useful volume by casting a wide net, and, where they’ve needed to fill a gap, writing it themselves, in the great Kantor tradition.

There are a few I haven’t yet dared to tackle, even over the sound-proof medium of Zoom (on Zoom, noone can hear you scream). Among them is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ave plena gracia, placed alphabetically very near the start of the volume and a somewhat daunting sight even for the hardened chorister. I’ve never once heard of it being performed or recorded, and it appears neither on Spotify or YouTube. Go on – I dare you to include it Nine Lessons next year. And while you’re at it, write your own descant – a little bit of regional diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and we wouldn’t want to all sound the same, would we?