Our annual tradition of commissioning a carol from a brilliant young composer started in 2014. This year, we’ve invited Alexander L’Estrange to write a setting of his own choosing. Here he introduces his stunning new work.
I was delighted to be asked to compose this year’s carol for the readers of BBC Music Magazine. The poem, ‘Love came down at Christmas’, is classic and Christmassy, and although many composers (including John Rutter) have set these words by Rossetti, no one melody has come to dominate. The words are direct, sincere and expressive; my aim was to provide music that would be a suitable stylistic match. The form is very straightforward: verses 1 and 3 are essentially the same, with a chance for the basses to come to the fore in verse 2 while the sopranos provide an angelic descant. A simple coda begins in unison and brings things to a serene close.
As a jazz musician with a love of harmony (I was briefly banned from singing at New College Choir in Oxford for humming added ninths in the last chords of pieces!), the task of creating a harmonically interesting and characterful soundworld within the confines of a four-part, SATB texture is a challenge I always find rewarding. I hope you’ll enjoy both the scrunches and the simplicity.
I trust the demo recording, made by me and my wife Joanna Forbes L’Estrange and available below, will be helpful. Part-learning MP3s are also available; there you can hear each part singled out with a very quiet backing to help you learn your notes, if that appeals to you.
We hope you’ll include ‘Love came down at Christmas’ in your carol service or concert. Please send us any audio files or YouTube links to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll put them on our website.
❄ The most important thing here, as indeed in all choral music, is the clarity and communication of the text. The English language is abundant with consonant clusters and diphthongs which are to be revelled in, not shied away from. If we sing the words as closely as possible to how we would say them, they can be heard and understood. As choral singers and directors, we can too often become overly concerned with precisely where to place final consonants and pay so much attention to lengthening ‘pure’ vowels that the resulting sound, while beautiful, can be less meaningful or moving for the listener. To this end, initial consonants (for example, on ‘Love’) and closed ‘m’ and ‘n’s in words such as ‘came’ and ‘sign’ must be heard. I have a particular dislike of rolled ‘r’s in modern English choral music and of sounding the silent ‘t’ in ‘Christmas’, so try to refrain from these mannerisms when you perform the piece!
❄ Decisions about where to breathe should also be governed by a desire to communicate the meaning of the words. For our demo recording, we chose to breathe with the commas in bar 5 (‘born’ and ‘God’), but you can decide what suits your performance best. Enjoy the octave leap at the start of the melody and pay attention to your tuning as you come down the scale. Dynamics are subtle but should be effective, particularly the crescendos into bars 6 and 15 and the piano beginning to verse 3.
Click on the links below to download your part-learning mp3:
Media Files :