LONDON — Every Christmas Eve, the British composer Cecilia McDowall follows the identical routine.
At 3 p.m., as relations arrive at her London residence, she goes into the kitchen, activates the radio and begins making a Christmas pudding — a slow-cooked, booze-soaked British dessert — whereas listening to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, carry out its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
That service of Bible readings and Christmas music is one among Britain’s finest recognized festive traditions, broadcast dwell on radio stations worldwide, together with on round 450 within the United States. A spokesman for the choir estimated that 100 million listeners would tune in.
But this yr, McDowall gained’t be within the kitchen. Instead, she might be sitting in King’s College’s large Gothic chapel, listening because the choir performs “There Is No Rose,” a carol she has written particularly for the occasion.
“It really is something significant,” McDowall mentioned of the fee. “It must be the most people who’ve ever heard my music in one go.”
Since the early Nineteen Eighties, when the Choir of King’s College started ordering up new works for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, notable composers of spiritual music like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt have written for it, in addition to extra shocking names like Harrison Birtwistle, a British composer of spiky modernist items.
King’s is way from alone in attempting to carry new carols, or a minimum of new settings of outdated texts, into the Christmas repertoire. McDowall mentioned she had written 10 carols for the reason that Nineteen Eighties, beginning with a bit for a college choir. This yr, as well as to the King’s fee, she wrote a setting of “In Dulci Jubilo” for the choir of Wells Cathedral in southwest England.
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John Rutter, a prolific British composer of Christmas music, mentioned in a phone interview that this yr he had additionally written two new carols: a setting of a William Blake poem for a most cancers charity’s carol live performance, and one other for the Choir of Merton College, Oxford.
Carol writing for choirs was a vibrant artwork type, Rutter mentioned, including that “no form of music can afford to be a museum where you’re only listening to the songs by the dead.” New works run the gamut from “something you might sing down the pub” to “refined and elegant compositions,” like McDowall’s, he added.
Andrew Gant, the writer of a guide on a historical past of Christmas carols, mentioned that some, like “The Holly and the Ivy,” are folks songs from earlier than written data, however that many have surprisingly latest origins, far faraway from the festive season. The music for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” as an example, dates to 1840, when the German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote the tune to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the printing press. Mendelssohn insisted the tune ought to by no means be used for non secular functions, Gant mentioned, however 15 years later, William Cummings, a British organist, took the melody and added phrases from a Methodist hymn.
Many carols “are a series of happy accidents” like that, Gant mentioned, including that it was solely in Victorian instances that British composers began writing carols particularly for Christmas companies.
McDowall mentioned the King’s College choir’s music director, Daniel Hyde, had requested that her piece present “a moment of stillness” within the service, and requested her to preserve it easy, in case choir members bought sick on the final minute and new singers had to be introduced in.
Last December, the choir had a coronavirus outbreak within the run-up to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, then determined to cancel its dwell broadcast fully as Britain was plunged into one other lockdown.
Hyde’s requests for an uncomplicated carol really helped McDowall focus, she mentioned, and the music got here quickly after she had discovered the phrases she wished to use — a Fifteenth-century hymn that tells the story of Jesus’s delivery. McDowall mentioned she had sung a setting of “There Is No Rose” by Benjamin Britten as a toddler and in addition admired a model by John Joubert. She submitted the piece in September.
McDowall mentioned she didn’t consider her carol competing in opposition to much-loved Christmas songs like “Once in Royal David’s City,” which opens the King’s service annually. “If any composer would be intimidated by the fact there exist other carols along the same lines, it’d just get in the way,” she mentioned.
Bob Chilcott, a co-editor of “Carols for Choirs” — a widely known compendium of Christmas music, first revealed in 1961 by Oxford University Press and up to date recurrently since — mentioned there had “been a huge energy for writing new carols” in Britain over the previous 20 years. Chilcott is within the course of of choosing 50 new items for the following quantity of “Carols for Choirs,” scheduled to be revealed in 2023. It may embrace contributions from up to date composers like Caroline Shaw, he mentioned.
Most composers take one among two approaches, he mentioned. The first is meditative, “maybe to do with talking about the quietness of the night, and the baby asleep in the manager.” The second is euphoric. “It’s all about the shepherd’s rejoicing and ‘Glory to God in the highest,’” he mentioned. Most composers additionally attempt “to write a good tune,” Chilcott added.
Rutter, who wrote a brand new carol for the King’s service in 1987, mentioned his success with carols just like the “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “What Sweeter Music” — each sung in church buildings all through the English-speaking world — was down to their memorable melodies, which appeared like that they had been round for lots of of years. He was “50 percent composer, and 50 percent songwriter,” he mentioned.
Hyde mentioned McDowall’s “There Is No Rose” was centered on “a beautiful cluster” of notes that “hover, like a freeze frame,” earlier than unfurling right into a tune. “The last thing you’ll hear is the original cluster we started with, echoing in the space,” he added. “I hope people will be moved by it.”
But McDowell didn’t need to say any greater than Hyde. The choir likes to preserve the small print underneath wraps, and doesn’t let any recordings of the piece emerge till after it has been broadcast — by which period McDowall must be heading residence to a ready Christmas pudding.