'The Owl' by Toby Young & Jennifer Thorp: Our 2017 Christmas commission
Sing our exclusive new Christmas carol
It's approaching December, so for the fourth year BBC Music Magazine have commissioned a carol from a superb young composer for our readers to sing.
With music by Toby Young and lyrics by Jennifer Thorp, 'The Owl' is performed here by Exultate Singers and conducted by David Ogden.
Get your choir singing our wonderful new carol and download the score here!
A few words from Toby Young...
Having sung pretty much every Christmas carol in existence during my time in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, I was hugely excited to be asked to write something new for BBC Music Magazine. And as much as we all love the classic festive texts, this seemed the perfect opportunity to commission a new poem from the hugely talented writer Jennifer Thorp – something that might sum up the excitement and beauty of yuletide, but in a new and unexpected way.
Jennifer didn’t disappoint, with an exceptional text capturing the landscape of these winter months. ‘In many traditional yuletide carols and poems,’ she writes, ‘a balance is posed between a dark, wild winter world and the intimate golden safety of human celebration. Pagan roots run deep here – particularly when it comes to the passing of the year – and festivals reflect that connection to darkness, with fires, feasts and revels that glow brightest through long nights. The owl, which embodies untamed wilderness and hunts under the yellow December moon, is an emblem of that delicious tie that exists between the carols sung indoors by candlelight and the bleak, beautiful midwinter beyond.’
Since my career has spanned classical, pop and folk traditions, I have tried to mix elements from all of these genres to create a musical language that really captures the magic of Jennifer’s words.
My carol The Owl is all about atmosphere, beginning with a cold, sparkling sound in verses 1 and 2, and gradually warming up into a more glowing colour for the chorus and third verse.
Strong dynamic contrast between the different sections will help create these moods. As with all carols, the words should be as clear as possible to give life to the direct and expressive text.
Rhythmically, this carol is full of hemiolas and cross-rhythms, which should be used to bring out the dance-like quality of certain phrases, particularly the unexpected and funky cross-rhythm in the soprano’s opening phrase (bar 5 and again in bar 9). In general, care should be made to make these moments of ambiguity between 6/8 and 3/4 feel as natural as possible.
At the chorus (bar 26), there should be a new injection of energy – imagine the owl taking flight and soaring! – with a new sense of excitement in the soprano melody, and lots of consonants to make the accented notes really explode. The accompanying ATB parts should use the dynamics to really push the music forward, using the forte words (‘under’, ‘heaven’, etc) to create as much drama and propulsion as you can. Be careful to save enough breath for the big crescendos in bar 31 and bar 39, to make them as majestic as they can be.
Most importantly, once the notes are learned and the geography is figured out, enjoy it. I hope it is as fun to sing as it was to write!
Click here to download the score.
We hope you’ll include ‘The Owl’ in your carol service or concert. We’d love to hear/see your performances, so send any audio files or YouTube links to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post them to our website and social media. To learn more about Toby Young and his collaborations with Jennifer Thorp, visit www.theothertoby.com
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.