Six of the best… unknown carols
We ask six top choirmasters to name their favourite little-known festive treats
Graham Ross: I Sing of a Maiden
A favourite and currently little-known carol is Graham Ross’s I sing of a Maiden. The text, written in the late Middle Ages, is of supreme beauty and Ross has captured the essence of the poem at least as well as Britten and Hadley. The music depicts the demure and almost mystical figure of the Virgin, through a harmonic palette of gentle but permanent unresolved dissonance and a daring refusal to submit to traditional soprano-alto-tenor-bass texture. The melodies are achingly beautiful and this carol is something new, fresh, stimulating.
Adrian Partington, Gloucester Cathedral
Arr. Richard Allain: Coventry Carol
I’ve chosen an arrangement of the Coventry Carol by Richard Allain. It’s a piece I’ve known for a few years now, and it’s just stunning. Richard’s harmonies are special and quite intense at times, but it’s a dramatic reading of the text, very beautiful. It’s got this haunting, pulsating quaver movement running most of the way through it and it’s an expansive arrangement – the scoring is quite wide. At one point in the piece there are five soprano parts as well as double alto, tenor and bass. It’s big rich scoring of what’s a great melody to start with, and he gives it a wintery haunting feel.
Matthew Owens, Wells Cathedral
Dr FW Wadely: O whither would ye go?
One of my predecessors at Carlisle Cathedral, Dr FW Wadely, composed a lovely carol, O whither would ye go? Set for unaccompanied four-part choir, each of the five verses takes the form of a dialogue between the upper voices who ask the shepherds where they are going and the lower voices who provide the answers. The simplicity and beauty of the music reflect the underlying the message of the carol, which is that we are all called ‘In love and humility to fall/At the feet of the monarch of us all.’
Jeremy Suter, Carlisle Cathedral
Arr. Richard Lloyd: I wonder as I wander
I wonder as I wander, an American traditional spiritual, in an arrangement by Richard Lloyd, is my nomination. Having been a chorister in Durham when Richard was Organist and Master of the Choristers, I confess there is a lot of nostalgia in my choice. However this is a beautiful melody, which is treated very simply for choristers alone, but with great care. Lloyd sets it in the rich warm key of B flat minor, within a lilting 6/8, with some lovely descant writing in the right hand of the organ part and a few unexpected harmonic twists. The whole piece finishes ethereally on a single top B flat.
Aric Prentice, Lincoln Cathedral
Arr. Lionel Pike: I wonder as I wander
Arthur Wills: Carol of the Foal
There is a beautiful arrangement of the original Appalachian tune I wonder as I wander arranged by my old college professor, Lionel Pike. He wrote it while I was his organ scholar at Royal Holloway University of London. It’s stunningly atmospheric with an opening and closing solo verse which just leaves you hanging… literally ‘out under the sky’, but it’s unpublished. Of published pieces, there’s a stunning little carol by Arthur Wills called Carol of the Foal. It’s another atmospheric piece with gorgeous, sensuous harmonies that Morten Lauridsen would drool over.
Scott Farrell, Rochester Cathedral
Geraint Lewis: A Little Hymn to Mary
Lewis sets this medieval text for high voices and organ in a spare style. The harmony is slow-moving and there is considerable use of echo and rhetorical silence in the accompaniment. Each line of the text is set discretely in a rhythmically simple and serene style, separated by passages for organ alone. The climax of the piece is a repetition of the first line 'Hail! Quene of Heven' halfway through, where the voices, divided into two, enter forcefully and high in the range. The whole piece is extremely effective in performance and has always made an immediate impression when we've included it in carol services, both at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, where it was first performed, and in Hereford Cathedral.
Geraint Bowen, Hereford Cathedral