C.104 - "Christmas Bells"

Composed: 11th to 16th November 2016

     Now a yearly tradition, this piece was my Christmas composition for the year, written for the University of Surrey carol service competition, just like "C.87". I wrote it from 11th to 16th November 2016, in place of “C.105,” which was to be written the following week.

    I persistently reminded myself as I started to write to “KEEP IT SIMPLE, YOU IMBECIL! THIS MIGHT BE YOUR LAST CHANCE!”. As I searched through many Christmas texts and poems, I rested on one that reminded me of “C.90 - Sunday” – “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (you probably know one of the many popular songs that use the same text, as I was to later discover). This text provided a great opportunity to explore ‘bell-like’ music further, but this time with voices.

     And it all went downhill from there. Farewell to simplicity, and welcome to complexity. I don’t know what happened, but it did. This became my most nonsensically complicated choral piece to date (not that it had much to compete with). With regret and disappointment, I submitted it to the carol competition, cursing myself for making it so needlessly complex.

     Of course, the piece did not succeed, but the response was reassuring (email received 29th November 2016):

     Thanks for submitting Christmas Bells. It's a wonderfully imaginative piece of writing but in practical terms would be very very hard to bring off. Even given two months of rehearsing I doubt whether we could get it right (it would challenge a professional choir) and so I'm very reluctantly turning it down.

 

     The idea of using change ringing as a textural back drop is really imaginative but for the singers to hold their pitch (in these clusters) and change to the next one accurately, together with keeping their place in the rhythmic sequence, is really jolly hard to realize. For real bell ringers at least they only have to worry about the rhythm!

      I do very much like the long-term harmonic pacing of the piece; and that you've chosen a good verse to set. Also it's always good to see students taking risks in these traditional forms. So I really am sorry not to be able to include it.

     And a further conversational response that took me by surprise from one of my composition lecturers, minutes later:

     “Too bad! I think it’s an amazing piece. Perhaps a studio recording?”

     A classic response! Nevertheless, that conversation stopped there.

    As for the music itself, it is very modal-inspired, taking elements of the Ionian and Lydian modes with some influence from the middle section of the incredibly old “C.77 – A Night Thought”. Looking back, there are some harmonies that I still find pleasing, and some of the voice leading is flowingly beautiful (albeit bloody difficult to pitch!). I remember that when writing the cadenza, I just let everything loose; I knew the piece was too complex to be performed at this service, so I just hammered it home and made it even more so. Both endings are rather weak, as I wrote in my diary on the 16th November, "Wrote a terrible 2nd ending; this piece has no chance of a performance!", and I am still not satisfied with how they turned out. But regardless, as I so rightly stated, no one will ever be performing it, so what does it matter.

     One more chance next year!

Reminiscence written on 29th December 2017

Last updated: 19th September 2019

© 2020 Jonathan Shaw