Christmas Concert 2023

He is Born – “Il est né”!   The title of our Christmas Concert on 9th December 2023 gave a strong clue as to the content of the programme.  We performed in our regular venue of St John the Evangelist Church, at the kind invitation of the Parish Priest, Fr. Brendan Clover, and there was a distinct French theme in some of the items we sang.  With our strong tradition in this country of ‘Services of Nine Lessons and Carols’ we can forget that the word “Noël” is French, and their tradition of singing Carols at Christmas goes back a long way.

The main item in the programme, however, was not a Carol, but Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Messe de Minuit pour Noël” – “Mass for Christmas Midnight”.  Charpentier (1643 – 1704) lived a generation before J. S. Bach, and this lovely work, composed around 1694, came as a joyous discovery to many of us.   The Mass follows the usual pattern, but Charpentier manages to interweave themes from ten French Christmas Carol into the music he wrote for the Latin text.  This was despite the fact that the use of secular elements had been strictly forbidden for used in religious worship by the Council of Trent in 1545!

The “Messe de Minuit” concluded the first half of the programme which began with J. P. Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus Natus Est”.  This five-part motet, composed in 1619 for the evening of Christmas Day featured joyous fanfare-like sections that set the appropriate note of celebration for the occasion.

After that the Choir sang three French Carols: “Il est né, le Divin Enfant” and “Quittez Pasteurs”, both arranged by John Rutter, between which the Choir sang a David Willcocks arrangement of “Masters in this Hall” with its repeated refrain reminding us of its French origins.  This was followed by William Mathias’s rousing setting of the 16th century text “Sir Christémas” with its refrain of “Buvez bien” “Drink ye well” – which is exactly what we did after the Charpentier Mass!

The second half featured carols by five English composers – Gustav Holst, Michael Head, William Walton, John Gardner and Alexander L’Estrange, and one born in South African but educated in England – John Joubert.  There were also two favourite Carols for the congregation to sing – “O come, all ye faithful”, and “Hark, the Herald Angels sing”.

Most featured was Holst, whose carol “Christmas Day” opened the second half.  Though most well-known as the composer of “The Planets” and other orchestral works, Holst honed his craft as a song-writer as the music-master at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College.  We also sang his setting of “This have I done for my true love”, and his arrangements of “Four Old English Carols”, namely “A Babe is Born”, “Now let us sing”, “Jesu, Thou Virgin born” and “The Saviour of the World is born”.  This proved a delightful collection of mainly new items to us, and they were enjoyed equally by our enthusiastic audience of about 100 – an encouraging number for such a busy evening.

Next the choir sang Michael Head’s delightful “The Little Road to Bethlehem”.  This was followed by Walton’s “All this Time” whose plangent tones are resolved beautifully in the joyous final cadence, and then John Joubert’s “There is no Rose”, which offered a delightfully lilting contrast.  

The final three carols began with John Gardner’s “Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day”, its highly rhythmic jauntiness and constantly changing metre keeping the singers and audience alike engaged and enthralled.  By now the audience was ready to stand and sing “Hark the Herald Angels sing” before the evening ended with Alexander L’Estrange’s “Song of the Angels”.  This features deliciously jarring harmonisations of the famous Orlando Gibbons’ ‘Tune 34’ familiar to many as the tune for “Forth in thy Name, O Lord, I go”, and was perfectly calculated to bring the audience to its feet with enthusiastic applause.

As always we were accompanied by the extraordinarily talented Richard Lennox on the piano, who offered his own “mash-up” of popular and some lesser-known Christmas tunes in the middle of the second half.  But the greatest credit must go, as always, to our ever-inspiring Music Director, Matthew Clark, whose interesting programme building is matched by his highly inspiring direction.  

Our next Concert, on 4th May 2024, again in St John’s, features some equally interesting programming, including a Choral version of Elgar’s famous “Sea Pictures”, arranged by Donald Fraser, and four items to commemorate the centenary of Gabriel Fauré’s death in 1924.  These will include his well-known “Cantique de Jean Racine”, his song “En Prière” arranged for chorus by Matthew, and his rarely heard Ode “The Birth of Venus”.  These, and items by Louis Vierne, Camille Saint-Saëns and Vaughan Williams’ ravishing setting of the 18th century folk-song “The Turtle Dove”, make it an evening not to be missed by lovers of choral music.  We hope you can join us.