Carols Consolidated: Lullaby music and London in winter
By Georgia Way (alto)
For singers, Christmas starts early. In the Holst Singers, we love festive music: the rehearsal schedule fills up from early November, and brings a kind of warmth with it. However, it can also be a faintly exasperating season. Singing about snow, sleigh bells, chestnuts and open fires is all very well until you leave the rehearsal room into depressing drizzle, with a blown-out umbrella and inappropriate footwear.
I often think of this contradiction – the images we associate with Christmas, and the rather less picture-perfect reality – when I think of the composition of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, which we will be performing next month under the illustrious baton of Bob Chilcott. The harmonies of this pearl-like, delicate composition, a Christmas favourite for many, seem to hang in the air like a glass bauble on a Christmas tree; but as the poet Bruce Blunt recalled, the spirit of its 1927 composition was motivated by a different sort of glass:
I thought of the words of “Bethlehem Down”. I sent them off to Philip [Heseltine, composing under the pseudonym Peter Warlock] in London, the carol was completed in a few days and published (words and music) in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves “Carols Consolidated”.’
There is something offensive about discovering that one’s favourite carol was written to fuel a drinking session. But this is Christmas in a (chest)nut shell. The images and melodies that we know so well always have something new, something unexpected, to offer. This is also one of the joys of singing new music, and the Holst Singers will be giving the UK premiere of Caroline Shaw’s The Children’s Eye in the same concert.
In 2020, carol services and concerts were thin on the ground, and non-professional groups didn’t stand a chance of meeting in person. The choirs that managed to put something together were constrained by the possibilities of Zoom, click-tracks and internet time lags, reduced to a series of unconnected voices. A video is no substitute for a ‘real world’ performance.
Singing in a group is a phenomenon: the act of making harmony (or atonality, as the case may be) from disorder, from separate voices which spend the rest of their time going about their business without a conductor beating time. Looking at it from the other side (I dare to hope) of a pandemic, having the opportunity to sing at Christmas doesn’t seem as routine or trivial as it did two years ago. Indeed, the return of our collective choral voice seems to make the experience of a rehearsal, on a wet and windy Wednesday night, deeply serious – even an act of faith.
#GeorgiaWay is a copywriter, librettist and has been a member of the Holst Singers for the past six years. She has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Manchester Review. Her collaborations with contemporary composers include a chamber opera, a song cycle and a Christmas carol. She studied English as a Choral Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. She is a member of the Flinging Sty poetry collective.