To be asked to write something for the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King's College Chapel is the penultimate Anglican accolade before a Royal Wedding or Funeral anthem or a Coronation Te Deum.
When this pleasurable invitation arrived back in the summer I faced the problem usual with any vocal genre — to find the right text. Once this is settled, music should follow sure as day follows night. But with the Christmas Story the field is at once delimited and thoroughly gleaned — nothing new is possible: everything is familiar; angelic Annunciation, no room at the inn, Virgin Birth. shepherds in the fields abiding, angelic chorus guiding them to the stable. the Infant who bears Infinity, Eternity, Redemption within his tender body, cradled between ox and ass, the Wise Men led by the star bearing their symbolic and prophetic gifts — before the story broadens out with Herod's paranoid massacre, then disappears from the frame in the flight to Egypt. Lost in picturesque fairy-tale, inex tricably enmeshed with pagan strains winter solstice, holly and ivy, fertility rites — more archaic still; tinselled over with jingle-bells (Santa Claus and Rudolph his red-nosed reindeer); heaving over into an abyss of spending, giving, receiving, eating, drinking, to be summed up at last in a Spectator cartoon some years ago showing two jaded consumers passing by a church announcing its Christmas services — 'Why do they have to drag religion into it?'
(A further element difficult either to incorporate or ignore, that every hallowed geographical reference, like '0 Little Town of Bethlehem, 'is bitterly ironised and dirtied by the continuous news from the land where 'peace on earth, goodwill to all mankind' was first proclaimed.) If it's all been said and sung a thousand times before the only thing to do is to do it for the thousand-and-first! My trawl through the means for this was absorbing and beautiful. The texts are most copious in the 13th-15th centuries: lyric after lyric of delicate freshness, their language — often macaronic, French and Englysshe mingled. plus Latin refrains — pellucid like dewdrops yet containing within this crystalline limpidity an implicit world of theological content, and invariably laid out in a seductively tight formal structure for music. But, alas, the best lilies, roses, sprigs of may, have all long been plucked! — mainly by Benjamin Britten in Ceremony of Carols, written while crossing the Atlantic from the USA to his native country and culture in 1942. One simply can't 'sing of a maiden, iwis' after such final perfection.
Tudor times are also rich in Christmas texts. also heavily quarried by later corn
posers. Here I must declare an aversion to the merry gentlemen/wassailing side: 'Why do they have to drag good and drink into it?'! The 17th century yields many fine poems, tending towards complexity, even overwroughtness, that makes them unsuited to carol-singing. Herrick preserves something of the earlier simplicity; and many actual hymns — by e.g. George Wither and Jeremy Taylor — are by definition designed for setting and still invite it. Hymnody continues to flourish in the age of Prose (as Matthew Arnold dubbed the style of Dryden and Pope); indeed some of the best-loved Christmas hymns (e.g. 'Hark, The Herald Angels Sing') hail from the 18th century, particularly its non-conformist wing — Whitfield, the Wesleys, Newton, Cowper. Not to forget the enchanting, little-known Christmas poems in Christopher Smart's comprehensive collection.
The Romantics draw a blank here; and I found Keble's once-celebrated Christian Year a bit biscuity. With later Victorians come plentiful favourite hymns — Mrs Alexander's 'Once In Royal David's City' can stand for them all: and the carol returns as a genre, even as a form; chastely simple without faux-naivete in Christina Rosetti, tending in William Morris and George Macdonald towards the artful, towards meretriciousness in Swinburne (but rather gorgeous), towards arch and arty in Lionel Johnson and other triolet-&villanelle makers of the Rhymers' Club.
And so to the 20th-century Catholic apologists Chesterton and Belloc, Anglican apologists like C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers — and moderns right through from Eliot to Hughes (again, as in the 17th century, for the most part too complex for music, at least for this kind of musical purpose).
An embarrass without an entree. How to get round? My eventual solution was to block out the 1,000-times-told tale: the Annunciation as prologue, then for main setting the stable, with human parents, the divine Infant, the beasts, a place gradually filled by the complete cast — angels in the sky, shepherds kneeling in adoration, kings arriving with tribute. Eventually the congregation is drawn in, too. All present are witness to and participant in an event that transgresses time and space, focusing narrowly down upon the newborn baby who encompasses them — he utters in a thin baby-voice his prophetic reproaches, then the focus opens out again to contain the whole picture.
This done it was easy to find the right words from the copious prior reading — a couplet here and there, a Biblical resonance, a few stanzas making a little selfcontained section now and then, sometimes a complete short poem, a couple of familiar hymns, the whole thing bound together with neutral link-lines of my own. Naturally the result lasts longer than the three to four minutes required by the King's service! On Christmas Eve they take the story to its first pause, the Adoration of the shepherds. 11 resto non dico — we all know what comes next.