Christmas music conjures up images of carol singers; church choirs accompanied by organ and the nativity.
While there is obviously a huge body of existing choral work, I wanted to find the more unusual responses that composers have produced to Christmas and music that explores the themes associated with the festive season.
This is reflected in my selection of pieces from the fabulous British Music Collection. I have included some less well-known pieces and composers; music that uses unusual combinations of instruments and music written specifically for children.
Sound and Music Heritage Quay: home to the British Music Collection
Written in 2003
For Choir and Orchestra
German soldier approaching British lines with a Christmas tree 25th December 1914
This piece is a very moving portrayal of the Christmas truce during World War 1 when for a brief moment on Christmas Day 1914 the killing came to a temporary halt as soldiers from both sides cam together to celebrate.
This year, 2014 sees the centenary of the Christmas truce.
Performance of this piece involves the choir being split into two halves and the two groups positioned on either side of the stage. With one side singing in English and the other in German, there is a particularly moving moment when the two choirs join together in the centre of the stage to sing Silent Night in both English and German.
'Shiftwork' by Howard Skempton (alternative title 'Sleigh Ride')
Written in 1994
For 4 percussionists with 'carrier bag percussion'
The complex rhythms of Howard Skempton's Sleigh Ride
The score of 'Shiftwork/Sleigh Ride' is written for what the composer refers to as 'carrier bag percussion' consisting of sleigh bells; two metal thimbles; a small pottery bowl filled with baking beans and two sets of maracas for each of the four players. The rhythms are complex as the four parts shift to produce different rhythm combinations between the players. The pulsating effect that is produced evokes a bumpy sleigh ride.
"‘I’ve always loved carols…There is something remarkable and quite unlike anything else about them.’"
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Carol singing has been a British tradition since medieval times.
'The Shepherd's Gift'
Written in 2000
For choir and organ
The Shepherd's Gift by Judith Bingham
While this piece may at first look like a traditional carol setting, being scored for choir and organ, its eerie feel displaces it from traditional Christmas music.
The score is wonderfully marked 'sunset over winter fields'.
The organ introduction with its unusual dark and ethereal harmonies and beautifully high-pitched melody sets the scene for the voices of the shepherds.
The music reaches a climax as the female voices join in describing the brightness of the star but ends gently, with the female voices sounding like angels.
Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' - The subject of Thea Musgrave's Christmas Opera
'A Christmas Carol' by Thea Musgrave
An Opera in 2 Acts, written in 1981 for 7 singers, a dancer, an actor, 3 children, 6 supers and an optional children's chorus.
This piece is unusual in that it is a piece of musical theatre written for Christmas. The libretto is written by the composer using a lot of Dickens' text. The music, while predictably complex describes the story and the emotions of the characters brilliantly.
"'She has done it so well that no one will eve dare to do it again... So clear is the emotion, one hardly needs words.'
The Guardian on Thea Musgrave's opera
'A Christmas Carol'"
Edward Greenfield for The Guardian
A Christmas Game!
This is an educational game intended for use in schools to get children improvising and composing.The graphic score is set out like a board game with no specific instrumentation. Each player rolls a die in turn and as they move their counters around the board performs tasks on the instrument of their choice or by using their voice. The tasks can be rhythmic or melodic and the players are instructed to perform the task alone or with other players. This is great idea to get children improvising and responding to ideas in a creative way.
David Bedford was the founding trustee of the PRS for Music Foundation. He was also the first composer in the UK to engage in creative work with children in schools, which did not become mainstream until the 1960s. In addition to the music he wrote for film and the pop world he also wrote a great deal of pieces for educational use.
'An Exciting New Game for Children of all Ages'
Written in 1969
For any number of players and any combination of instruments
Graphic Score for David Bedford's game
'Christmas Ale' by Phyllis Tate
Setting of the wassail song for Choir and Orchestra
Written in 1967
'Wassail, Wassail, all over the town, the cup it is white and the ale it is brown'
Tucked away in a miscellaneous file at the British Music Collection I discovered this amazing hand-written score of 'Christmas Ale' by Phyllis Tate.
A setting of the wassail song, our only secular yet Christmas carol, the work is scored for mixed voices and orchestra and shows some beautiful contrapuntal vocal writing. There is even a lovely moment when the voices imitate the sound of the church bells.
This music is highly evocative of all things Christmas and while the scoring hints at the religious message of Christmas, it remains a secular work.
Phyllis Tate was the first woman on the management committee of the Performing Rights Society.
Written in 2006
For Strings, Woodwind and Percussion
'Falling Angel' by Tansy Davies
Written in 1994
For Soprano and Piano
This piece was composed for soprano Elizabeth Connell and is based on an amusing poem by David Martin, which describes Christmas in the sweltering heat of the Australian bush.
"Stuffed with pudding to his gizzard
Uncle James let out a snore,
Auntie Flo sprawls like a lizard
On the back verandah floor"
Words of David Martin's comic poem
'Toy Music' from 'Sounds Fun'
A collection of musical games for children
Written in 1974
'Toy Music' from 'Sounds Fun' by Trevor Wishart
This is a book of musical games put together by the composer as part of his music education work with schools and community groups in Leeds.
In this particular activity, plastic trumpets, melodicas, party blowers, balloon bagpipes, duck whistles and various types of bells were used by the 8 performers in a free improvisation session. The children were encouraged to choose an instrument and join in.
Curator—Amanda Johnson, Composer