Three Christmas carols you may not have heard before

As a sometime treble and adult chorister, music plays a big part in the spirit of Christmas. However, it’s possible to get tired of the same repertoire being used over and over again. Yes, I know Rutter’s a genius, but – dare I say it? – a lot of his work is pretty tedious and formulaic, mass-produced for choirs of average ability to churn out with their eyes closed.

So I thought I’d present my three favourite Christmas carols for no particular reason other than I love them and you may not have heard them before.

1. O Adonai by Roderick Williams

Oh, how I love Roderick Williams. I first came across him when our choir was asked to sing with Paco Peña in a performance of his Requiem for the Earth. And Roderick sang the brief baritone solo that forms part of one of the movements. So I was pleased to learn that he’s a composer too.

His O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel was on a CD that a friend lent me and it’s the standout track of that compilation. He creates an enormous soundscape from a simple element, sung by a solo soprano, that builds to incorporate the entire choir and then fades away into nothingness. I imagine it’s fantastically hard to sing well.

You can hear it here.

2. Away in a Manger by Sir John Tavener

We all know Away in a Manger. David Willcocks wrote a wonderful arrangement with a lovely lyrical tenor line, but most often we end up singing it in unison as a congregation hymn. So it’s a bit surprising that John Tavener came across the words long before he came across the music. When he did finally hear the music, he felt that it was wrong; it didn’t fit the words properly.

Hence his version, which is uniquely Tavener. It turns its three verses into something that manages to be completely timeless and beautiful. You’ll never want to go back to the other versions again.

You can hear it here.

3. What Sweeter Music by John Rutter

Having slammed Rutter in my introduction, I’ll forgive him for What Sweeter Music. Written for King’s, it is starting to find its way into the modern repertoire. It’s far from ‘classic Rutter’. It’s a lot harder, to begin with, and it develops a more complex set of harmonies rather than sticking to one throughout.

Of the three in my list, you may have heard this one before (I’d say “stop me” except this is the end of the list in any case).

You can hear it here.

Music and emotion

At university, I sang first tenor in a college choir. The college choral scene is a fairly mercenary affair and many colleges seek to bolster their ranks with choral rejects from colleges with a much better singing tradition. And so it was that I, an outsider, shared the pews with two other outsiders. One was a third year English student, distant heir to a brewing fortune and quite possibly the most intelligent and insane person I have ever met. The other was a PhD candidate whose thesis covered the relationship between music and emotion.

Now, you must understand, I have not always been the calm, measured person I am now. At some point, we got to discussing his thesis and I didn’t agree with him. I was polite enough not to come to blows; after all, I had to sit next to this chap three times a week. But I had to agree to defer to his greater knowledge. He, after all, already had his degree, whereas I was only a pretendy philosophy undergraduate.

His proposition was that music cannot instil emotion in people. While he accepted that you can hear music and feel emotions, these emotions are merely an epiphenomenon caused by some attachment you have between that piece of music and some life experience. The music, in and of itself, does not cause the emotion. He believed that it cannot do that.

This afternoon I was listening to random bits of music on my mp3 player. I came across a song I hadn’t heard before by the Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee and my spirits were lifted. I simply don’t accept that there is some hidden connection with Tim Kerr’s guitar or Mike Carroll’s rough-as-shit vocals that caused my emotional change.

I’m going back in time to retract my deference. The theory’s bollocks.

Today in church: women and frogs

Today’s Gospel reading, for those of you who care about these things, was the tale of the Syrophoenecian woman, from Mark 7:24-end. The sermon drew out some interesting aspects of this story.

Firstly, having just come back from a spiritual retreat on the nature of women in Christianity, the curate emphasised that it’s sometimes necessary to read the New Testament with a suspicious eye. The Gospels were written by men in a time when the genders were most certainly not equal. So this makes the story of the Syrophoenecian woman even more incredible. That a woman from a very lowly part of society could draw up the courage to speak to Jesus, and even to answer him back when she doesn’t get the answer she wants.

Secondly, this is a story about persistence. A sort of “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” if you like. She finds strength and courage in her faith. And good things happen to her.

Thirdly, we must accept that Jesus is really pretty mean to her. He basically compares her people to dogs, and initially won’t help her. But, thanks to her persistence, he changes his mind. This is intriguing when compared to the concept of an all-seeing and all-knowing God. For us lesser mortals, it’s heartening to see that even Jesus sometimes has to go through a thought process. It’s sometimes okay that we don’t get the right answer first time, so long as we continue to be responsive to the situation.

As for the frogs, we were fortunate enough to have Messiaen’s wonderful O Sacrum Convivium as the communion anthem. I remember singing this for the first time and, as we sight-read through it, finding myself drowning in its overlapping dissonances and resolutions. And, at the end of the service, the organist played Cesar Franck’s Chorale No. 3 in A. Youtube links for both are below.