When I was invited to write a new carol for BBC Music Magazine, I started wondering about what makes Christmas carols so enchanting, how a modern carol might fit into the wonderful repertoire that already exists and, most importantly, what it is exactly that we love about them. When I asked my friends and family what their favourite carol might be and why, I was delighted to discover that the array of preferences was so vast. Christmas carols can elicit such a wide range of festive memories for us all, from singing in cold churches surrounded by snow to families huddled by warm fires and the welcome wishes of good tidings.
My own favourite is Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter. I love the simplicity of the music and that, even though the text was written in 1872, the descriptions of the winter landscape, the references to the sacred Christmas story and that beautiful ‘what can I give him?’ moment of self-reflection still feel relevant in our world today. Inspired by this, I decided to write my own poem for this year’s carol. The words, which depict snowy scenery and starry allusions to heaven and earth, also include a modern twist as I dream of walking home at Christmas time under the warm glow of the street lamps all covered in a silver frost.
A Winter Carol is written in three verses, with a short refrain in between which repeats the word ‘winter’ (at bar 9, for example.) The music might move a little quicker than you are expecting as, even though it is to be sung thoughtfully with a focused delivery of the words, the piece is a small, celebratory reflection of Christmas time and it is not necessarily sentimental. The carol begins in quiet consideration before opening up a little later. During the verses, there are moments of almost call-and-response patterns between the upper and lower voices (at bar 11, for example, with ‘creation waits’ starting in the tenors and basses before passing to the sopranos and altos in the following bar).
In the refrains (which occur with soprano up-beats into bars 9, 20 and 35) feel free to add embellishing swells of dynamic interest to the repeated word ‘winter’. From bar 20 onwards, the piece should feel quite hearty and warm as you sing out the louder dynamics. Give more attention to the dynamics from bar 29, as the fortepiano marking at bar 30 can be really effective if you exaggerate it as well as the longer drawn-out crescendo in bars 33 and 34. Make sure that you have reached a loud dynamic pinnacle by bar 35, though, so that when you suddenly drop down to a really quiet dynamic at bar 37 it feels like a large contrast.
This section, involving bars 37-42, can be quite playful in nature. The upper parts swing back and forth quietly whereas underneath, in an almost whisper at first, the lower voices have gentle interjections. This builds, growing in dynamic, until all the parts are united again in bar 42 ready for the final coda, which returns to a more soft, thoughtful expression reminiscent of the opening passage.
I hope that you might enjoy singing A Winter Carol. A big thank you for taking the time to do so, and Merry Christmas!
To buy further copies of A Winter Carol, go to boosey.com/WinterCarol