O Radiant Dawn by James MacMillan
There are few songs which open with as much impact as O Radiant Dawn, taken from James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets. It’s simultaneously serene and powerful. The long, drawn-out suspensions build excitement, and the moment the choir comes in each time to sing the refrain, it practically blows the ceiling off.
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Every year, BBC Music Magazine commissions a new carol and in 2018, Dobrinka Tabakova took on the challenge and wrote this fabulously lilting carol, which could be equally effective in a pub as in a church. The syncopated rhythms and off-beat claps are difficult to get right, but when executed well, are incredibly powerful and fun. You can hear this carol on the cover CD of the Christmas 2019 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
Lully, Lulla, Lullay by Philip Stopford
Written in 2008, this stunning interpretation of the 16th-century Coventry Carol is much more melancholic in tonality than its original version. The text is similarly sorrowful in both: it tells the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, the events in which King Herod ordered all boys under the age of two to be killed. The carol is written as a lament from a mother to her doomed child. Stopford’s interpretation is simple, lilting and beautiful.
Bethlehem Down by Warlock
This 1927 carol has a beautiful tenderness to it, and proves a perfect pace-breaker in concerts. The story of its composition is surprising – Warlock and his friend, the poet Bruce Blunt, indulged in a few too many drinks at Christmas, and decided they should write a carol together, in the hope it would be published in a national newspaper. A few days later on Christmas Eve, it was written and published in The Daily Telegraph.
This year, BBC Music Magazine’s commissioned carol came from the brilliant young composer Owain Park, set to Frances Chesterton’s Here is the little door, a poem also set by Howells in 1918. It’s a wonderfully expressive piece, with the choir moving together as one, but is also uncomplicated, so is easy for choirs to have a go!