It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas – Saturday 13th December 2014

The Ashbourne Singers and the Young Ashbourne Singers directed by Steve Duckworth produced a festive treat this Christmas to a packed audience at St John’s Church.  The programme combined traditional and more modern pieces to suit everyone.

Steve Duckworth’s notes on the pieces from the Programme:

“This is the truth sent from Above, The truth of God, the God of love” opened the Concert with these simple words, beautifully arranged for four parts by Vaughan Williams. The tune is of English folk origin, introduced to Williams in 1909 by a folk singer from Herefordshire, so it is sometimes referred to as the Herefordshire Carol.

For Unto Us a Child is Born from the Oratorio ‘Messiah’ followed.  Like an Opera, an Oratorio is a large work for orchestra, choir and soloists. An Opera is ‘staged’ with costume and sets, whereas an Oratorio is strictly speaking a Concert piece, typically portraying sacred stories. Messiah has become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Bob Chilcott was a member of the King’s Singers – a slick close harmony all male voice group that perform a wide variety of musical styles. There he arranged a number of pieces for the group, such as The Gift based on a traditional Shaker Melody (‘Lord of the Dance’). Like Chilcott, John Rutter is another prolific and very popular current British choral composer. Nativity Carol tells the story of the nativity in words by the composer himself.

The next few pieces firmly reflected the importance folk music has on what we hear and sing today.  Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice” and is a medieval song celebrating the birth of Christ, ‘Rejoice, rejoice!  Christ is born of the Virgin Mary’.  Curiously, it enjoyed mass popularity when it became a hit in the charts for electric folk group Steeleye Span in 1974, despite their version not sounding at all Joyous!  “On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at” is the popular ‘national anthem’ of Yorkshire – so popular in fact that the origin of the music as a hymn tune has been almost forgotten. The tune “Cranbrook” was written around 1800 by a cobbler from Canterbury, Kent(!) and was widely sung to the words While Shepherds Watched their Flocks at the time. I wonder as I wander is a haunting melody and reflective text that originates from America. It is testament to the power of this melody that so many modern composers have wanted to write their own arrangements of it (myself included). Finally, Child in a Manger is a Celtic Carol, you may be more familiar with sung as a hymn, to the words Morning Has Broken!

‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘ is one of the most beautiful Christmas texts, written by the English poet Christina Rossetti sometime before 1872.  Its imagery is immediately captured by Chilcott with a simple motif in the opening two bars that clearly reflects falling snow.  The middle of the poem depicts the triumphant scene of people bestowing gifts, with angels, cherubim, and seraphim gathering to watch Christ’s birth. After all that excitement, the poem asks, if I have nothing to give, “what can I give him, poor as I am”. Answer – the most treasured gift anyone could give to another, their heart.

Much of the music in the second half will needed no introduction.  Lesser known, is the song I heard the Bells on Christmas Day written in 2008 by contemporary Christian rock band Casting Crowns with words taken from the Christmas Carol “The Bell Carol” and was their eighth Number 1 hit single.

Originally performed by Kermit the Frog (who made a cameo appearance at the concert) in the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, Rainbow Connection seems to be something of a lost treasure, in the UK at least. Having contextual similarities to Somewhere Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz, the song serves a similar purpose in depicting the human desire to urge for something more in life – but knowing it won’t be found in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Silent Night – A Christmas Truce.  Finally the choir paid a moving tribute to those who gave their lives in the Great War.  At Christmas 100 years ago thousands of troops manned the trenches of the Western Front, separated by only 30 or 40 yards in places.  World War 1 had been raging for several months. In the weeks leading up to Christmas a series of unofficial truces began to happen at isolated points along the front line. Hostilities would cease to allow both sides to bury their dead.  As Christmas approached, a sense of ‘live and let live’ mutually grew amongst the men and the truces became more widespread, culminating in what is now referred to as the Christmas Truce. Many thousands of troops ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to exchange rations as gifts and sing music – a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.