About this Recording

Bethlehem Down and other carols for Christmas

Of Scandinavian ancestry on his father’s side, Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was born in the spa town of Cheltenham and studied music at the Royal College of Music in London, using his second study, the trombone, to provide a useful income. He spent much of his career as director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. He had perhaps his most significant success with his orchestral work The Planets, first performed in 1918, and now firmly embedded in English orchestral repertoire. His settings of English words were influenced by his interest, shared with his friend Vaughan Williams, in English folk-song. The Four Old English Carols were completed in 1907, the year in which, in addition to his duties at St Paul’s, Holst took on responsibility for the music at Morley College. Lullay my liking, a setting of anonymous words, dates from 1916 and was arranged for upper voices by Holst’s daughter Imogen, who did so much to promote her father’s music after his relatively early death.

The musicologist Philip Heseltine (1894-1930) took the pseudonym Peter Warlock for his very different work as a composer. He was particularly influenced by Delius and then by Van Dieren, developing his own musical language, particularly in the setting of a discriminating choice of English texts. Balulalow, an anonymous text from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, is one of a group of three carols from 1923, while Bethlehem Down and The First Mercy were both originally written in 1927. They set words by Bruce Blunt, and the first of these appeared as a part-song, a Christmas supplement to the Daily Telegraph, later to be re-arranged as a solo song in the year of Warlock’s death.

I sing of a maiden, words that were also set by Warlock, Arnold Bax, and Lennox Berkeley, among others, is heard here in a version by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973). A pupil at the Royal College of Music of Vaughan Williams, who inspired his love of folk-music, Hadley was Professor of Music at Cambridge from 1946, after holding a fellowship from 1938. Influenced by Delius, he developed his own musical idiom, expressed in relatively few works and in the lyricism of the present work.

Michael Head (1900-1976), a composer, singer and pianist, studied and then taught at the Royal Academy of Music, and was widely known, wherever the Royal Schools hold away, for his work as an examiner and adjudicator. Many of his songs have enjoyed great popularity, with Star Candles described in one publication as ‘traditional’, a token of acceptance.

The Finchley Children’s Music Group began its career with a performance of Noyes Fludde by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and there has been a continuing association with his music, particularly works written expressly for children’s voices. His setting of the anonymous fifteenth-century Corpus Christi Carol is adapted from his own early set of choral variations, A Boy Was Born, Op.3, first performed in 1934. The carol, originally heard against a contrasting text by Christina Rossetti, was adapted by the composer for accompanied voices in 1961. King Herod and the Cock is an arrangement of a folk-song, a further example of Britten’s ability to enhance such material, and his setting of Hilaire Belloc’s The Birds was written in 1929, while he was still at school. The latter was one of the works submitted, successfully, for a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, awarded when he was sixteen.

The English composer and conductor Andrew Carter (b.1939) studied at Leeds University and in the 1960s served as a bass in York Minster Choir, founding his own Chapter House Choir, for which he wrote many of his successful vocal compositions and arrangements. The works included here are A maiden most gentle, words paraphrased from the Venerable Bede coupled with an arrangement of an old French melody, and Sweet was the song the Virgin sang, an arrangement of a traditional carol. The present programme ends with Andrew Carter’s setting of his own words in Mistletoe Carol.

John Rutter (b.1945) enjoys a wide reputation in Britain and America for his choral compositions, notably his Requiem which has won remarkable popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, he later returned there as director of music, before founding his own Cambridge Singers. His compositions have been principally choral and his work includes collaboration with Sir David Willcocks on the second, third and fourth volumes of the Oxford Carols for Choirs, a source of so much Christmas material for choirs professional and amateur. Deck the hall is heard as his arrangement of a traditional Welsh carol, and Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is taken from his cycle of traditional carols, Dancing Day. The Holly and the Ivy is a further characteristic arrangement of a traditional Christmas carol.

The traditional West Indian carol, De Virgin Mary had a baby boy is heard in an arrangement by Thomas Slessor, and two arrangements by the conductor of the Finchley Children’s Music Group, Grace Rossiter, are included, her version of the Sussex Carol, with a tenor solo, and The Angel Gabriel, words by Sabine Baring-Gould, a Basque carol.

Keith Anderson

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