A Christmas Carol (2018)

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Tamara Wilhite recently published on this forum an article entitled “Why All the Depressing Christmas Songs?” I can see her point; there’s a lot of rubbish “music” around with some attempt at a Christmas theme. There are also, however, still some pretty decent Christmas tunes. As a tuba player in a brass band, I usually have a busy December playing this music in various places – from churches to shopping centres to care homes – not to mention standing outside in the cold under a lamp-post! (Fortunately, we don’t do as many of those last as we used to).

 

We play all the old favourites of course: Hark the Herald, Silent Night, O Come all ye Faithful, and others that people can sing along to. We often finish with Jingle Bells, starting quite slowly but getting faster and faster and faster! We also do some of the less well known, and often more complex, tunes from the carol books, as well as arrangements of some more modern Christmas “classics.”

 

But because I’m an arranger and composer as well as a player, I have another string to my bow at Christmas. Since 2014, BBC Radio 3 has held a carol composers’ contest. The idea is that they publish a poem, and people send in their settings of those words for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir, with or without piano accompaniment. Out of usually several hundred entries, the BBC then shortlist the six they consider best, their singers record them, and the recordings are published on the BBC website. People can then vote for the one they think is the best of all. All six get played in the week or so leading up to Christmas, and the winner will be sung live on air a few days before Christmas, then the recording played many times on Christmas Day.

 

I heard that I was not far off the short list in 2016, and this year I had even higher hopes, as I had a late draft of my carol run through a local church choir, and the message I got back from their musical director was “Potential winner.” Sadly, it still didn’t make the short list, but that’s the BBC for you. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worth publishing the score here, so those of you who are choral singers can try it. It’s only five pages long.

 

The words, I admit, are a bit naff – that was another of the comments I got from the choir. But the blame for that lies, not with me, but with Carol Ann Duffy, the UK’s current Poet Laureate, who wrote these words in 2011. (See https://wordverseuniverse.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/the-bee-carol-duffy/ for the original words). But I hope that people will find my music to those words, albeit a slow melody and written in the minor key, to be fun to sing, and in no way depressing!

 

So, here’s the music:

 

 

 

Comments

Steel Breeze Added Nov 26, 2018 - 9:27am
liked....
Ian Thorpe Added Nov 26, 2018 - 11:17am
Neil, considering the BBC and Carol Ann Duffy were involved I surprised the poem did not contain these words:
"Jesus is born in a humble shack,
Praise The Lord, he's gay and black."

I'm not big on Christmas or religion in general but there is something rousing about a brass band playing outdoors, whatever music they are playing.
Tamara Wilhite Added Nov 26, 2018 - 4:32pm
Freezing bees to deliver a lone jar of honey is not uplifting.
Tamara Wilhite Added Nov 26, 2018 - 4:33pm
Dennis Prager, a conservative Jewish talk show host, discusses here why he can celebrate Christmas as a holiday but not holy day as an American and how liberals are attacking religion on the whole.

Just Say "Merry Christmas" by Dennis Prager
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwVpTYez82w
Dave Volek Added Nov 26, 2018 - 7:51pm
Neil
 
My nieces and nephews are more musically talented than I. I tell them to write a poppy or religious based Christmas Carol that becomes an instant hit, and no one in our family will ever have to work again! So far, no luck.
 
As for this one, the lyrics are terrible. It won't fly.
 
I used to sing in a men's choir (four part harmony). The music looks interesting to try out, but it's been a while.
 
Our director had us singing more than a few not-so-popular pieces for our Christmas concert. I can't recall any of them despite singing them many times. Those popular songs somehow find an edge that can't always be explained by good marketing.
 
Jeff Michka Added Nov 26, 2018 - 9:04pm
Wilbwhite should give us her impression of Bing Crosby by singing a correct version of "White Xmas..." 
 
"I'm screaming because I'm white and it's Xmas everywhere I go."  It's Trump's favorite version.
Flying Junior Added Nov 27, 2018 - 1:34am
Neil,
 
I'm a little bit busy this time of year or I might have printed out your score to have a little fun at the piano.  From what I can see, the harmony and counterpoint are very symmetrical and balanced.  The tenor line stood alone well.  The alternating 3/2 and 4/4 time signatures lend themselves well to traditional British carol writing.
 
I can't help but wonder how it sounds.  Perhaps it is worthy of a substitute text.  Something like In the Bleak Midwinter would work quite well.
Ward Tipton Added Nov 27, 2018 - 2:08am
The only time I sing, I sing solo. Preferably so low that nobody hears me. The last time the neighbors started shooting! 
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:05am
Steel Breeze: Thank you.
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:08am
Ian: Thank you for your kind words about the brass band.
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:12am
Tamara: That isn't the message I took from the poem. I think the writer is trying to say she doesn't want to take too much honey, because the bees need it to get through the winter. At the end, I even think she was making a bit of a pun - I interpreted "believe" as meaning "bee leave," and "bless" as "bee-less" - i.e. by the end of the poem, it's spring, and the bees have left the cluster and are flying around!
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:23am
Dave: Yes, I agree, the lyrics are naff (as I said), but they aren't mine. They are the verbal droppings of the current Poet Laureate.
 
As to the music, I'm not sure how well it would work in a barbershop quartet. The top and bottom parts really do need to be 3 octaves apart in places, so you'd have to put it down into (say) C or even B flat minor, and need you'd both a counter-tenor and an ultra-low bass.
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:31am
Flying Junior: Feel free to come back when you're less busy, and take a look at it. On the rhythm, I'm just one of those people who likes to use unconventional rhythms - like the alternating 3/2 and 4/2 here, or 5/8 and 7/8 which are two of my favourites. That partly explains why I never got into pop music - it's too rhythmically boring for me.
 
As to how it sounds, I do have an MP3 of it (Sibelius makes a surprisingly good job of "singing" choral pieces, although it doesn't do the words, of course). But publishing an MP3 on the Internet doesn't seem to be straightforward - though I suppose I could ask Autumn to upload it and link to it if enough people are interested.
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:32am
Ward: Ah yes, your singing is obviously so good that your neighbours couldn't resist joining in with some percussion effects!
Flying Junior Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:36am
I could just play the four-part on piano or organ.  It does look promising.

Ward Tipton Added Nov 27, 2018 - 4:59am
Their percussion ... or is that per their cussin' ... made a lasting impression for sure LOL
Dino Manalis Added Nov 27, 2018 - 8:28am
 Merry Christmas!  Happy Holidays!
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 10:14am
Neil - thanks for this. As poems go, gotta look for the metaphors and allusions. I think you've captured some of the depth in your statements. My musical comment is that you've got the sopranos up on high A-flats singing much too softly. Any soprano worth her muster cannot bear to be up at A at anything less than forte.
 
For our Symphony concert this year, one of the offerings is John Rutter's Donkey Carol in 5/8. I was not familiar with that one, and that is a challenging meter to sing in. But we're getting it now.
Neil Lock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 10:54am
Broken Clock: Yes, I thought the mezzo-forte top A flats might be a bit over the top - particularly the second one, where there's an octave jump. (Look at the words, and see how different the stress pattern is in the last verse from the others - "cloistered" is hardly a word fit to be made into the climax of the verse - and yet, the melody had to go up there!) I know from experience that equivalent notes on brass instruments are tough below forte, too. But the lady through whose choir I had it run assured me that, although these notes can (and did) faze an ordinary church choir a little bit, a slightly better choir - like the other one she runs - wouldn't have a problem.
 
I've listened to the Donkey Carol, and it's really good, isn't it? Easy for the basses (in particular) to fall behind the beat in that rhythm, though.
opher goodwin Added Nov 27, 2018 - 1:06pm
Neil - I think we should get right back to the pagan festival it all sprang from!
Even A Broken Clock Added Nov 27, 2018 - 7:18pm
Neil - as an elder tenor, the difference between an A and a B is like the digital difference between a 1 and a 0. A-flat is much better. But I can still hit A's - unless it is at the end of singing 2/3 of Messiah and trying to sing the A at the end of the Alleluia in Worthy Is The Lamb. I plumb ran out of A's to sing that one.
 
Our choral director told a story about one of the legendary soprano's of the past, who was suffering from a bit of hoarseness. When she was doing a concert that called for her to do a B or a high C or some other improbable note, in her debilitated state she just pointed up with her finger as she stayed mute for the high note. That took chutzpah.
Tamara Wilhite Added Dec 2, 2018 - 9:30pm

Jeff Michka I identify with my faith, not my race.
 
Your prejudice against conservatives, Christianity and Western culture is obvious.
 
You consistently smear anyone who stands with any of the above with the modern insults of "bigot", that they're evil incarnate.
Tamara Wilhite Added Dec 2, 2018 - 9:32pm
There are, maybe, 10,000 real "white supremacists" in this country.
 
When Activists Say Something is ‘White Supremacist’, They Mean Something Else
https://medium.com/@george.mckeown1/when-activists-say-something-is-white-supremacist-they-mean-something-else-b056a967c8fa
Tamara Wilhite Added Dec 2, 2018 - 9:32pm
Smearing all conservatives as KKK is like equating all liberals with Antifa and all Muslims with ISIS.