Advent Calendar Day 25: Four Carols and an Oratorio

Merry Christmas!  I always find it impossible to choose just one beautiful piece of music for Christmas Day, and this year, I’m not even going to try!  Instead, you are getting four carols and an oratorio – and it’s all I can do not to add more, because there are SO MANY carols that I love.  Really, SO VERY MANY…

I love all the things that are going on in this arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo by David Willcocks – fugal bits, little floaty descants, you name it.  It comes together just beautifully, and I love the wistfulness of the ending.

You can’t have Christmas without a big descant, and Hark the Herald Angels does have, objectively, the very best of all the descants (even if it’s a bit of a pig to sing if you are only a part-time soprano like me). Also, who doesn’t love a good trumpet fanfare at Christmas?  (The choir who is trying to sing descants against it without ruining their voices, that’s who…) (but seriously, it’s pretty glorious).

The Holly and the Ivy has always been a favourite carol of mine, and didn’t fit into my playlist this year, so here it is, in a particularly lavish arrangement by Henry Walford Davies, and conducted by John Rutter.

You will not often find me approving of a Rutter Christmas carol, but I make an exception for this lovely version of Joy to the World.  I think Rutter is at his best when arranging existing carols, and when given someone lets him have trumpets, and here he has both of these things, with excellent results.

Last of all, something which isn’t a carol but is yet another Christmas Oratorio, this one by Camille Saint Saëns.  I’ve shared this before, because I love it, especially the Alleluia and the Consurge.  It’s very pastoral and sweet, and is quite short by oratorio standards – 40 minutes, so just about right to wind down to on Christmas night.

And that brings us to the end of our musical journey through Advent!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the music I’ve shared, and that you have a joyful and stress-free Christmas and a healthy and happy 2019.

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Advent Calendar Day 24: The Holly and the Ivy (Trad. Arranged Shaw)

The Holly and the Ivy has been one of my favourite Christmas Carols since I was quite young – I think I first heard it when my family stayed for a few months in England when I was six, and I rather imprinted on it because there was *actual holly* near where we lived and that was pretty exciting.  Australia doesn’t really run much to holly, especially around Christmas.

This is one of those carols which tends to show its Pagan roots, while simultaneously being very very Christian and going, ‘no, really, the holly is totally all about being a symbol of Christ’s passion and has nothing to do with Yule, honest!’.  So it always sits just a little oddly with me, even though I love both the melody and the words, with their vivid visual imagery.  There are a lot of arrangements doing the rounds – I’m also fond of the Mediaeval Baebes version, and if you ever wondered what Annie Lennox does with it, wonder no longer!  I especially like her jazz harmonies in the later verses.  Gorgeous.

Advent Calendar Day 14 – The Holly and the Ivy (Mediaeval Baebes)

I’m not sure this next one is strictly an Advent carol (I’ve been saying that a lot, I know); it usually gets sung as a Christmas carol, though it shares the advent tendency to focus on aspects of theology or Christ’s life other than his birth.

I first heard this carol when I was six years old and living in York. It brings back to me my first experience of conkers, that gorgeous walk home from school through late-autumn woods (that smell and look completely different to the Australian kind), complete with red squirrels and actual robin red-breasts (just as exotic to me as koalas are to our overseas visitors), and then across the stepping stones of the lake at York University. It reminds me of the fascination of cobbled streets and Roman walls and going to bookshops up long flights of stairs in The Shambles when it was already dark outside. It reminds me of ice on car windows, of colouring in stained-glass snowflakes (which was as close as I got to real snow that year), of eating blackberry jam and collecting gollywog stickers while watching Jackanory, and of being Clara in the school production of the Nutcracker – because, as the school closest to the University, lots of academics and graduate students from overseas sent their children there, so the teacher thought it would be a good way to showcase national dances and costumes. (Presumably, Australia was not cultured enough to have a costume or a dance, and that’s why I got Clara. Or perhaps it was evident even at that stage of my development that my talents lay in memorising lines, not in dancing.)

And it reminds me, of course, of holly, which is so beautiful and shiny and green – and such a good green! – with those wonderful rich red berries that seem so much brighter in the grey of a Yorkshire winter than they ever could in the gold and blue of an Australian summer (it’s true that we have redcurrants, which are almost Christmas decorations in their own right, but we don’t have the darkness for them to shine in). Also, it’s prickly, which was generally the part I encountered. But that didn’t prevent me from adoring the colour and the name of it – holly is such a lovely, sparkly green word that sounds just like what it is. At least to me.

I love this carol, too, because of all the colours in it – the red of the berries, the white of the blossoms. The green isn’t mentioned, but it’s implied, at least to me. I didn’t even notice all the religious content until years later. And the melody is beautiful, and the version we do in choir has these perfect harmonies in the verses that make me happy.

Mostly, though, I love this carol because it reminds me of York.

This is another Mediaeval Baebes recording. Why should King’s College Choir get everything their way? I don’t trust them not to sing it as though it was rocket-fuelled…