A year on from the huge success of our 2014 specially commissioned carol ‘Lullay, my liking’, we spoke to the composer Thomas Hewitt Jones about how it felt to see his carol performed by BBC Music Magazine readers, and the Christmas issue cover CD from The Queen’s Six. You can download your free copy of the 2015 carol, Good Day, Sir Christemas! by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, here.
What was your reaction to being asked to write the 2014 BBC Music Magazine Christmas carol?
I was really really pleased. It was a wonderful opportunity to have access to such a wide readership, and I loved the idea of having a friendly competition with choirs sending in their version of the carol.
How did you start composing it?
I wanted to make the carol accessible for all kinds of choirs, so that it would be easy for readers to perform. I looked for a text that would reflect the canon of Christmas music, but that I could set in a contemporary and fresh way. The text I chose, Lullay, my liking, is a lullaby sung by Mary to the Christ child. It was originally a song but the music doesn’t survive at all. I think it reflects the thoughtful, and even melancholic, aspect of Christmas.
What was the first performance you heard?
Boosey & Hawkes, who published the carol, recorded the carol (with me conducting!) soon after the release. The Exultate Singers in Bristol also made a YouTube video, and quite a lot of choirs included it in their Christmas concerts and services!
The Queen’s Six have included Lullay, my liking on our Christmas issue cover CD – what do you think of their performance?
It’s my favourite yet! Because they are an all-male group they’ve actually transposed it down a tone, in F minor instead of G minor. It’s a lovely tonality, and I was struck by the difference in sound. The purity of their singing, which is almost icy at times, is just wonderful. I first heard the recording while I was on the tube dashing round London, and it was a much-needed moment of solace.
What is your favourite carol?
Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock. For me, composing is about thinking slightly outside the box – trying to write something that is emotionally engaging, that takes people to a different place. This carol does that, but it also slightly jilts you with its unpredictable harmonies, which don’t move as you’d expect.
The world premiere of Thomas Hewitt Jones’s ‘Panathenaia’ – a cantata based on the Parthenon carvings at the British museum – can now be watched online