In this week’s post on Christmas music, I am focusing on 20th and 21st century additions to the repertoire. Many modern composers have been inspired by the heritage I touched upon last week– European sacred choral music from the medieval period onwards.
Kenneth Leighton, an English composer and pianist (1929–1988) was influenced in particular by Vaughan Williams, who was in turn influenced by his field research into traditional British folk melody. Leighton’s setting of the Coventry Carol has become his most famous work. Written in 1948, it is a setting of a text whose earliest known version dates from 1534. Using a modally influenced melody and luscious close harmonies, it is an instantly appealing work. A soaring soprano solo aptly evokes the vulnerability of the child Jesus, and contrasts dramatically with the full-choir verse describing Herod’s rage at the news of his birth. This outstanding version is by Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton.
Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child
My second choice, by coincidence, is also a tale of King Herod hearing the same news. In this strange and symbolic text, a roasted rooster comes to life in its dish:
1. There was a star in David’s land,
In David’s land appeared;
And in King Herod’s chamber
So bright it did shine there.
2. The Wise Men they soon spied it,
And told the King a-nigh
That a Princely Babe was born that night,
No King shall e’er destroy.
3. If this be the truth, King Herod said,
That thou hast told to me,
The roasted cock that lies in the disk
Shall crow full senses three.
4. O the cock soon thrusted and feathered well,
By the work of God’s own hand,
And he did crow full senses three
In the disk where he did stand.
In this contemporary setting of a folk text by Gareth Valentine, a treble solo also dominates. The part-writing, for upper voices only, is extremely demanding, and beautifully executed by the London Oratory School Schola, directed by Michael McCarthy with John McGreal, organ. Valentine, currently much in demand as a musical director in London’s West End and composer of a popular setting of the Requiem, knows how to write a well-crafted and striking melody. He also devotes one stanza to the cock crowing, which is a humorous touch. In the midst of humor however, there are some spine-chilling moments.
King Herod and the Cock
Probably the best-known of these three carols is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. The text is by an 18th-century unknown New Englander, and was set by Elizabeth Poston, an English composer and pianist (1905–1987). She chooses a strophic setting and a simple folk-like melody, which wonderfully matches the simplicity of the text. The piece has become justly popular. Unlike the other texts, there are no dark undertones here, and the warmth of the close harmonies envelops one like the branches of an apple tree on a sunny afternoon.
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
“The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.”
What contemporary Christmas carols do you like? I’d love some more recommendations.