Cheryl Frances-Hoad is one of the UK’s leading contemporary composers. Her works are performed around the world, including at prestigious venues Wigmore Hall, The Purcell Room and Cadogan Hall. This year, we asked her to compose a Christmas carol especially for the readers of BBC Music Magazine. You can see the world premiere of ‘Good Day, Sir Christemas!’ here, and get your free copy of the sheet music here, or in the Christmas issue of BBC Music Magazine.
What was your first experience of music?
My mum was a flute teacher, and I used to sit in with her lessons. She noticed I might be musical when I’d sing back the aural exercises that she gave her students. I started on flute and recorder, but I really wanted to be a concert cellist! I started the cello when I turned eight, and got into the Yehudi Menuhin School six months later.
When did you start composing?
Almost as soon as I arrived at the Menuhin school. Before I could play any stopped notes on the cello, I just wrote for the open strings. Then when I was 15 I won the BBC Young Composer of the Year award, and the BBC Philharmonic played my Cello Concerto. That was when I decided to be a composer.
Have you composed a lot of Christmas music?
When I was 13 or 14 I composed a carol, ‘There is no Rose’, for the Bach Choir Carol Competition. It was performed in the Royal Albert Hall – my only performance in the RAH to date – by the Bach Choir. I’ve only just recorded that, on my vocal CD with Gonville and Caius choir. The first piece I ever had professionally performed was a Christmas carol, conducted by Sir David Willcocks. We spent 15 minutes discussing the carol before the rehearsal – it was one of the first instances where someone outside school really took my music seriously. After the performance he wrote me a long letter saying how much he’d enjoyed it. I still have the card today!
What’s the best bit about composing Christmas music?
The piece I wrote when I was young was quite solemn, but at the moment I’m really writing unashamedly joyous music – that’s what I aimed for with ‘Good Day, Sir Christemas!’
What is your favourite carol?
My favourite carol is ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen!’ I’ve got a weak form of synesthesia – I associate sound with particular colours. ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen!’ is mostly performed in E minor, the colour of holly!