The short life-span of a Christmas carol

One thing that has surprised me this Christmas: the relatively short life-span we impose on Christmas carols.

If you’re generous you’ll start listening from the December 1st. If you’re looking to delay gratification then it might be the last week before Christmas or even the day before.

In my case the usual intense anticipation is experienced listening to carols in the week before Christmas Eve. This is topped by the ultimate ‘peak carol moment’ hearing Once In Royal David’s City at the beginning of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

I get all het up about the vulnerability in the voice of the chorister. The regret and sorrow mixed with the agonising hope in Arthur Henry Mann’s arrangement of Henry John Gauntlett setting of words by Cecil Frances Alexander.

Yes, I know. That’s a lot of names. But they’re important. These are the people who create the things that colour, support, frame, or in some cases just denote Christmas. Melodies, harmonies, and feelings.

Creative individuals are behind these things of intense beauty – creations that capture, reflect, and summon a range of uniquely personal and distinct feelings around a particular season.

Christmas morning sees me bravely clinging on to the spirit of the night before, listening to choirs singing their hearts out, accompanied by half-hearted congregations only too aware of the return to normal proceedings the following Sunday.

Much of that change in listening experience is down to me the listener rather than any prescribed listening schedule. Why shouldn’t carols still be relevant late on Christmas Day? Come to think of it, why shouldn’t they still be listenable-to, relevant or moving on Boxing Day?

I listened again to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols again today during a walk to nearby Blackheath and back.

One of the carols that stood out for me in both broadcasts was a piece by Judith WeirIlluminare Jerusalem.

At just over two minutes long, I like the carol’s brevity and the way the close harmonies move seemingly effortlessly as one (homophony for those not already aware of the terminology).

What particularly grabs my attention and keeps me hanging on for more are the neat harmonic conclusions at the end of each verse. The progressions are tight, almost to the point of being throw-away. And the conclusion of each verse has an addictive quality too. There’s something unresolved. I end the short carol wanting another verse. I walk away bereft.

Weir’s carol is the equivalent of a canapé served on a slate at a press launch. My technique has always been to grab, chew and swallow as quickly as I possibly can so that I have an opportunity to grab another. Obligation inevitably drives the waiter to press on. I’m left looking for the next slate and the next opportunity.

Although aware of Judith Weir and her significance in the UK specialist music scene, I was unaware of Illuminare Jerusalem until a couple of days ago. It was the concluding chords that caught my attention, and prompted me to listen again today on Boxing Day. It amazed me to discover the carol premiered at Nine Lessons and Carols in 1985. I’d never heard it before. Why on earth wouldn’t we listen to carols beyond Christmas Eve or Christmas Day morning? We might as well do.

I confess to knowing little more about Weir or her works. I know she’s prolific, but I can’t recall any others. Shame on me.

Occasions as the Nine Lessons and Carols succeed in doing is raise awareness and trigger further research. It seems utterly bizarre to me that I can know of a person because her name is familiar in certain circles but at the same time have absolutely no sense of what her output is.

My lookout. A project for 2018, I think.


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