Festive euphoria

Christmas is impossible to pre-empt in a blog post. Far easier to reflect.

After a family Christmas Eve supper during which carols were sung (I hung back with the introverts all equally uncomfortable flexing our vocal chords in the presence of a familiar but otherwise uncritical audience), and a visit to our neighbour for drinks and nibbly-bits, the big day proceeded quietly and calmly. Efforts in the kitchen were deployed equally between myself and The OH, together, in consonance and without incident.

This combined with the subsequent benefits of actively adopting a low-key and pressure-free Christmas meant that for the first time in many years a blissful air descended on both of us. The Christmas spirit isn’t a construction nor is it a euphemism. Goodwill is a realistic mindset and one to strive for.

The effects of this sometimes euphoric state were down to a combination of my own thinking, some of which driven by conversations I had with family members over the Christmas break.

Underpinning the season, was an overwhelming desire to make sure that Yuletide excess was avoided. Pleasure can be derived from adopting a far more modest approach. Instead of buying in gratification, why not look for the pleasure in what you have already?

During a telephone call this evening, my 80-something mother told me this was a sign of maturity. A relief to hear given that I’m 46.

These conclusions arrived at about excess and modesty haven’t been arrived at because of my my independent working life either, it seems. According to one recently retired family member at the Christmas Eve gathering, it’s what countless new retirees have come to understand quickly after their working lives changed. It’s also what most freelancers fail to acknowledge as an aspirational value.

Within these redrawn boundaries new personal needs and wants are contained. Discovering what those needs and wants are momentarily feels like the headiest kind of gift.

So it has been over the past few days. A mixture of warmth, contentment and intense love for the people, things, and traditions that make life complete.

Expressing that provokes a rush that is difficult to contain (and handle). The experience is something akin to the third movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony. All-encompassing beauty which can render me an emotional wreck, and has as a result seen me avoid the symphony altogether simply because I couldn’t cope with the intense emotion that pours from the score.

When you recognise what it is that’s important to you – the constituent parts of it – you simultaneously appreciate how fragile that happiness is.

At the same time, the white heat of such intense understanding forges something new: a determination to embark on a new path, a recognition of what’s possible, and a commitment to making it happen in some form or other.

If this is adulthood, then its long overdue.

Warning. Melancholy.

Christmas carols are dangerous. Be warned.

You might set out in good faith to listen to a rousing melody that stirs the heart, but if you’ve not selected your running order carefully you will, I promise you, end up feeling irretrievably morose.

That’s what carols are designed to do. That’s why we need descants. Carols are a heady, life-threatening mix of melancholy and celebration. A bittersweet musical expression of all the pain and the joy we experience as individuals.

Approach with caution. We have a collective responsibility to be vigilant. We mustn’t settle for the familiar. Seek out that which subverts expectations.

My festive musical discovery this year is Voces 8 Christmas album from 2011.

It’s partly a collection of some of those familiar melodies, but treated to a bit of a harmonic revamp. Each carol remain rooted in the choral tradition which helped those melodies embed themselves in our collective consciousness, but various present-day composers have been given free-rein to add their own harmonic stamp.

Thomas Hewitt-Jones’s jaw-dropping exploration in the final verse of Once in Royal David’s City (a more three-dimensional harmonic experience compared to David Willcocks’ descant), then indulge in Jim Clements’s gradual unravelling of Away in a Manger.

And there’s an additional pleasing thing to mention about this album. It’s on Signum Records, who just last week celebrated reaching two million streams of its content. Not a bad achievement for an independent label whose owner turns up at the concerts for the groups he’s produced to sell CDs. Yay. Signum.

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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Advent can start now

Sometimes when I listen to Choral Evensong I wish believed in God. That way I wouldn’t feel like quite such an imposter. Especially during Advent.

Friday 1 December this year saw a flurry of music-related promises spat on social media to get your Christmas sorted with the ‘perfect’ playlist.

Christmas music served up like medicine. Pah.

I’m wrong. I forgot about the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College Cambridge broadcast on Radio 3 this afternoon.

The Advent carol service is the opening salvo for an epic tale. You may not believe, but the story is tantalising. That’s reflected in the grand harmonic progressions, mysterious drama, and absorbing theatre.

Like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, the Service for Advent is a broadcast moment and, despite my lack of belief, remains for me the first day of my festive season.

This year’s service is a corker. From the epic O Come O Come Emmanuel to Swayne’s dark and mysterious Adam lay iBounden.

Advent is underway. All other playlists pail into insignificance.

Listen to the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College via BBC Radio 3. Follow the order of service here.

Christmas on Radio 3

The BBC announced its Christmas programming for radio last night at a special launch event at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

I didn’t attend – I didn’t receive an invite. How quickly people forget about you after you’ve left the BBC. Tsk.

No matter, because in actual fact, such events – previewing events which haven’t quite been finished off and some not scheduled – must be a bit of a nightmare to make work.

Some tidbits from the Radio 3 section caught my eye:

Music by Bach fills the scheduled programmes on Christmas Eve (nice)
Bach’s B Minor Mass from the Utrecht Early Music Festival on Christmas Eve (nice)
Lunchtime Concert featuring violinist Isabelle Faust (a real star of this year)
Horatio Clare returns with another Slow Walk in Germany from Tuesday 19 December (bliss)
Christmas around Europe on Sunday 17 December (thanks EBU Radio)
In Tune Christmas Special on Monday 18 December (always a hoot)
Sean Rafferty meets Dame Janet Baker on Christmas Day (pre-recorded, obviously)
Private Passions with Alfred Brendel (don’t expect there to be any Rachmaninov)

The BBC Proms repeats feature a wide range of the festival’s concerts though sadly none of my highlights. There’s also the Marriage of Figaro live from the MET on Saturday 23 December.

And on Christmas Day on BBC Radio 4, a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Armistaud Maupin.

Christmas is for me the time I listen the most attentively, and when I have the greatest appetite for being challenged. Comparatively speaking, what’s on offer isn’t exactly a scintillating package of Christmas goodies – a sign, no doubt, of squeezed budgets. On the whole it just lacks a little bit of innovation.

But unlike last year, there isn’t that feeling that everyone’s going to be packing up for the holidays a week before and pressing play on the CD player as they vacate the building.