Christmas has a love-hate relationship with the new. Presents have to be new, almost by definition, but a new way of doing Christmas can feel like a betrayal, or an ersatz substitute for what went before. On the other hand, old styles of Christmas can glow with memory and story, or they can feel dull and outworn.
New carols are more common than you might think, and they can come in all shapes and sizes. The opening paragraph of Percy Dearmer’s preface to the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols contains these words:
“Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. … But they vary a good deal: some are narrative, some dramatic, some personal, a few are secular; and there are some which do not possess all the typical characteristics.”
Possibly the most prolific writer of modern carols is John Rutter, founder of the Cambridge Singers, who has composed 42 over the course of his lifetime.
But while he is world-renown, there are many other new carols composed every year. To find out more, I thought it best to begin searching at the other end, the small end.
So, what are choirs doing new this Christmas? I confess I came to this project later than I should have. Next year I will ask the question in good time and with lists of people to ask it of, all prepared well beforehand. This year I asked musical contacts, church contacts, church music contacts, and people I’d quizzed about tune-honoured places. And I heard good news of new endeavours!
One gathering that’s had to make a point of newness at Christmas in recent years is Downing Place United Reformed Church in Cambridge, formed in 2018 from the union of two congregations. Member Jane Bower writes:
“Our minister Nigel Uden, himself a gifted reader and wordsmith, commissioned a new verse for each carol we were singing, relevant to the fact that we were having our first Christmas as a newly united congregation in the newly renamed Downing Place URC.”
Jane was asked to supply a new verse for ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, reflecting the fact that the new church was working in a city centre. She replaced, for that year, the stanza beginning ‘How silently, how silently’ in Phillips Brooks’s original hymn with this:
And let that Love in our own streets Shine out in all we do On screen and page, through youth and age, In buildings old and new. Through café, college, shop and school, In care home, church and ward, That, night and day, our city may Be home to Christ our Lord.
An arrangement is the musical equivalent of a new stanza, where an existing composition is adapted in some way. Richard Prince is in charge of Christmas music at Barkway parish church in Hertfordshire. For the last ten or eleven years he reckons he’s been able to supply something new every year. This year, he tinkered further with an arrangement he’d made of the Sussex carol ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’, and this went down well with a sizeable audience at Royston Choral Society’s (RCS) Christmas concert on 16 December. Richard Prince can be contacted via RCS.
Prince has also written music to Charles Causley’s poem ‘Mary’s song’ for this year’s carol service at Royston parish church.
Another new setting of existing words has been made by Bob Chilcott for ‘The first Nowell’. I heard of this from the vicar of Little Cornard in Suffolk, the Rev. Daniel Whiffin. It was due to be sung at one of his other churches, St Mary, Bures, on 17 December. This isn’t quite the same kind of home-made music-making as the above examples. It was commissioned for the nationwide ‘Follow the star, join the song‘ initiative. As the established melody to ‘The first Nowell’ is a mite repetitive (folklorists have theories as to how it got that way), this new alternative tune is very welcome.
Ian Wilson has revised his 2017 carol ‘Come and See’ for St Paul’s church in Great Baddow, on the edge of Chelmsford. Retired head teacher Wilson has quite a diverse composition track record, as you’ll see here. You can hear the carol by clicking play below.
The Dubai-based composer Joanna Marsh set Malcolm Guite’s sonnet ‘The hidden light’ for the Advent service at St John’s College, Cambridge. She says the author gives hearty permission for anyone to read the sonnet out in a church service over the Christmas period. Colleges can afford to bring this kind of work into being, and to publicise it.
Let’s have a look at these, now we’ve reached the big end.
Granta Chorale, based in Saffron Walden, ran a competition in the autumn for new carols by young people in school years 7-13 (= age 11-18). The results were announced at a concert on 3 December in Saffron Hall. We hope to bring you more information about the winners in later articles. Granta Chorale is planning a similar competition next year.
BBC Radio 3 ran a competition for settings of Simon Armitage’s poem ‘Polaris’. The results have been announced here. Winners of both the Junior and Senior categories are from our East of England region. We may bring you further news of this in a separate article.
‘Polaris’ is a winter poem, not a Christmas one: an expression of anxiety about the rareness of snow. The rareness may be a problem; the sentiment isn’t. Secular carols have a long and honourable history; besides, climate concern enjoys dressing up as religion. And the exact boundaries of carol form are not to be insisted on.
There’s also this, a newly commissioned piece by Héloïse Werner – you can’t get much “bigger” than St Paul’s Cathedral!
Nothing is more fickle than tradition. Have your own search of how the word is used, and you’ll see what I mean.
The carol tradition is growing and expanding all the time, and it is not confined to Christmas. I began with a quote from the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols. That volume includes carols for all seasons. It remains in print despite the presence of its Christmas-focused successor the New Oxford Book of Carols.
The OBC‘s ‘Notes on the use of carols’ suggest holding carol services every Sunday afternoon throughout the year. That, in Nigel Molesworth‘s phrase, is a good idea but one that probably would not work. None of the people I quizzed for this article had heard of such an experiment ever being tried, and it would strain resources somewhat.
So let’s moderate it a little. Not carol services once a week. But once a month? Or once a season?
Or once a celebration?