When I was little, every Christmas Eve we would go to a carolling party hosted by our neighbours. Along with other local families, we would crowd into their front room. On the table there would always be a miniature Santa sleigh filled with packets of smarties, and under the Christmas tree there would be a mountain of clementines. There on the tip of each branch of the tree would be a little red candle, lit with a real flame. When everyone had arrived and the front room was packed full, our host would bring out his accordion and the singing would begin.
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Later when I was a teenager, I was part of the chamber choir at school. In the weeks leading up to the Christmas carol concert I mostly remember the evenings staying late with friends after school, sharing gossip and snacks before rehearsals. On the evening of the concert, all dressed in white, we would wait outside the church. We were each given a candle and as we stepped into the church one by one, in that moment of hushed anticipation, the candles were lit and the opening processional began. The carol concert would end the same way, and we would take our little lights out into the night.
To me, carolling is a kind of ritual that is about coming together during the long dark winter evenings and lighting them up with song. The togetherness is sacred, and it’s hard to ignore how severely deficient in togetherness this year has been.
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All things considered, writing this carol for this year’s Christmas was definitely an act of reckless optimism. The lyrics to A candle sings of simple things were written by my friend Charlie Cotton. When I rang him, I asked if he knew of any old Christmas poems. He didn’t suggest anything, but we talked about Christmas and traditions and what writing a carol right now felt like. The next day I received a generous email from him, full of words for me to set to music.
A candle sings of simple things starts with a simple melody that should sound natural and open-hearted. There are no dynamics marked for the opening or for the verses, so whatever feels most natural to you is the right way to sing it. When you get to the chorus, ‘O behold be held’ (bar 14), go ahead and belt it out, like you’re out in the streets or the town square calling everyone to join you — until the piano at bar 22 where the altos and tenors suddenly highlight the tenderness of the words.
When you get to bars 24-27 you’ll notice there are three optional solos in the sopranos, tenors and basses. If your choir has a singer in each of these parts who would enjoy a solo moment, then these bars are for them. If not, then really make sure you exaggerate the hushed piano marking here. The canon that takes you from here until bar 43 is one big build-up.
The final phrase doesn’t have any dynamic marking, just like the opening. However you choose to shape it – loud and bold, or gently beguiling – this phrase should feel like an invitation.
We do hope that ‘A candle sings of simple things’ will eventually find its way into your services and carol concerts – if not this year, then perhaps the next. Please feel free to photocopy the music or download the PDF from classical-music.com – and do share it. If, by some happy chance, you get the chance to perform it with your fellow singers, do let us know at email@example.com.