Howard Goodall on Enchanted Carols

  • Posted on 30 November 2009 at 1:11pm
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I am sure I am not alone in thinking of the twenty or so best-known Christmas carols as the perfect embodiment of the spirit and message of the festival, more so than all the other trappings of the season, adorable as they are – the trees, the baubles, the reindeer and that off-duty fireman/Rotary Club treasurer/Lollipop attendant in his red coat and fluffy beard. At the heart of the Nativity story lies an idea that can move Christians and non-Christians alike – namely that a child born in poverty and obscurity could change the world: this idea, under-pinned as it is with a plea for charity and human brotherhood, is expressed beautifully and memorably in those catchy, endearing tunes, many of them inherited from an aural, folk tradition that pre-dates hymn books, candle processions and lavishly exhilarating organ accompaniments. When we think of our childhood experiences of Christmas, these melodies and ringing phrases are the trigger to the waves of emotion and memory attached to them – for many, indeed, carols are Christmas.

I feel as if I have had the Carols for Choirs arrangements of the most familiar of them somehow hard-wired into me, with their thrilling, last-verse descants and their reassuringly sonorous Anglican harmonies, so returning to the ‘top twenty’ list of carols for this CD presented me with a curious problem that as a composer I don’t often have to confront: how to hear these tunes and words afresh, how to reinvent them for the soaring high voices of my Enchanted Voices group, how to give them ‘my’ sound without diluting their existing impact and charm. I retain a deep respect for the arranging brilliance of David Willcocks and John Rutter who shaped the choral landscape of Christmas for the second half of the 20th century, but I had to put them out of my mind all the same, and here we are, anyway, in the 21st.

Composing the brand-new ones in the collection, mostly settings of medieval Latin words, was relatively easy by comparison with the task of rediscovering the blockbusters! I had two guiding stars on this journey of reinvention – one was the distinctive vocal colour of the Enchanted Voices singers themselves, outstandingly skilled female choristers from the collegiate & cathedral ‘evensong’ tradition, interwoven with chamber organ, handbells and solo cello, a sound developed in the first Enchanted Voices CD with its settings of the Beatitudes, a CD which installed itself at no. 1 of the Specialist Classical CD chart for 6 months after its release. This (humbling) vote of confidence from the music-loving public made me think the combination of voices and its style – long, flowing phrases of newly-devised ‘chant’ against a contemplative, gently-undulating foundation – was one that worked well and one that could be used to good effect with carols old and new.

My other guiding star was the knowledge that the melodic arc of most classic carols is essentially derived from plainsong. Some of the best are plainsong in its purest form – Veni, Veni Emmanuel, Puer Nobis Nascitur, Gaudete and so on. This seemed to chime (excuse the pun) with the musical canvas that was emerging not just from the Enchanted Voices CD but also as we took the group on tour around the country in a live series, ‘Sky presents Classic fm in concert’. Audiences were amazingly warm and appreciative of the Enchanted Voices troupe and I began to hear in my head how that ethereal, slightly unworldly sound might adapt itself to the plainsong sources of the carols. The fit felt right. In fact, as is surprisingly common with Christmas music, I composed the settings on this CD in the baking heat of a French summer, so I was obliged to let my imagination take complete control of my writing about the snow, the figgy pudding and those freezing, un-tented shepherds!

As with all my composing, though, the music emerges, fully formed, out of nothing, seemingly, and very soon I was immersed in those hauntingly high soprano lines, gliding effortlessly above the horizon, echoing across the centuries, somehow bringing together the ancient purity of the medieval past and the here and now. I hope we have succeeded in making the meeting between them as rewarding to listen to as it has been to conceive.

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