Christmas is my favourite time of year, partly because of the music. I love choral music and Christmas is the highpoint in the choral calendar as seemingly endless rehearsals fade into a long span of concerts leading up to the big day. No Christmas holiday would be complete without going to a carol concert and this year I am giving myself two helpings as I am going to the concert at St. John Smith Square
performed by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and the carol service at Chichester Cathedral
which I go to every year (another Christmas ritual).
Chichester is a magical place to be at Christmas as the traditional Georgian houses display twinkling lights on dainty trees in their windows and the delicious smell of woodsmoke wafts through the streets from the chimney pots above the mad, scrambling shoppers looking for their final gifts. The trees outside the Cathedral are decorated with lights and each year the young choristers help to decorate the tree inside the Cathedral. The carol service draws a huge crowd and everyone jostles inside to get their seats. The population of Chichester tends to be quite civilised until, that is, they want good seats at the carol service. I have to say it is a purely militant operation and the leading perpetrator of scurrying in with elbows at the ready is my Granny. She is a lovely, sweet lady but a lady who knows how to operate.
I enjoy a good belting sing (not sure that the people around me appreciate this) so Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Oh, Come all Ye Faithful are carols that I particularly look forward to as the congregation get to join in. But what is really fantastic is when the choir sings. One year they sang A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells, a 20th century British composer. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I had heard and it is my favourite Christmas carol. I have it on my iPod and I have to ration when I listen to it or else I would end up listening to carols all through the summer!
The words are taken from a 14th century poem:
A spotless Rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root
/ Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, of Jesse promised fruit. /
Its fairest bud unfolds to light amid the cold, cold winter,
/And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing, whereof Isaiah said
/ Is from its sweet root springing in Mary, purest maid.
/ For through our God’s great love and might
/ The blessed Babe she bare us in a cold, cold winter’s night.
I love the imagery and when the lyrics are coupled with Howells’ flowing melody they are made even more beautiful. You can hear a recording here on YouTube by the BBC Singers. My favourite recording is by the Cambridge Singers under the direction of John Rutter. This carol is also a favourite as it combines my areas of interest; somewhat oddly, I have a serious penchant for both medieval literature and music and early 20th century literature and music (don’t ask me anything about the Victorians – my knowledge of 19th century literature is sparse to say the least) and this carol brings together the two periods in history that I love. But aside from that it’s just a lovely tune to listen to on a cold winter’s night.