How to write a Christmas carol

What makes a piece of music a Christmas carol, anyway?

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Musically speaking, Christmas can be a very conservative time of year. For many people, it is the only occasion they go to a sung church service or a concert. We expect to hear what we know and to be able to sing along – no one wants to have to try to puzzle out the melody of some 15th-century French motet in a freezing-cold church in December. What makes a piece of music a Christmas carol, anyway? Besides references to angels, shepherds and newborn babies, a melody that even the least musical congregation can bellow out is definitely desirable. What would a carol service be, after all, without “Once in Royal David’s City”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”?

So, it seems against the grain to make Christmas the focus of a competition for new compositions but that is precisely what BBC Radio 3 has done. For the second year running, it has invited listeners of its Breakfast show to compose their own Christmas carol, setting words written specially by the poet Roger McGough. “Comes the Light” is a mostly traditional bit of writing, with references to the “baby lying in straw”, but it has a triumphant refrain imploring people to “Sing out . . ./For those with faith and those without” that hints at a slightly more secular celebration.

On a chilly Monday afternoon in November, I heard the BBC Singers rehearse the six shortlisted carols (this is the music that passed muster according to the panel of judges, including the composer Judith Weir and assorted other choral music professionals). There was something so very BBC about the whole affair – the studio in Maida Vale, west London, has barely changed, at least in terms of decor, since the 1930s. Several of the successful amateur composers were there to hear their music sung for the first time. The expressions of wonder and delight on their faces as the conductor David Hill, leading his singers, gave their carols the full professional treatment will stay with me for a long time. All had approached the text differently, favouring varied structures, tempos, keys and time signatures, yet there was something commonly festive and approachable about every piece. After a public vote, the winning carol will be performed on 23 December, broadcast live into hundreds of thousands of homes bustling with almost-Christmas cheer.

Even within the people involved with the competition, the idea of what a carol is and how to write one differs. One of the shortlisted composers tells me: “Traditionally it is a telling of a religious story – not always Christmas. A carol should reflect human emotions in a common language – music – that can be sung and shared by everyone.” Another feels the community element to them is vital: “Carols are short pieces of sung music, traditionally involving the whole community or a choir singing together. Their words contain a message, most often Christmassy, which can draw in singers and listeners alike.”

David Hill, the BBC Singers Chief Conductor who chaired the judging panel, was impressed by the different takes on McGough’s poem. “It’s amazing what talent is out there,” he told me after the rehearsal. “We are talking about people who don’t do this for a living, after all. Such a high standard, and quite catchy. Some real earworms.”

Despite Christmas being a very busy time for those in Hill’s line of work, he remains cheerful about the festive music he has to choose from. “In my years of dealing with Christmas carols, the number available has proliferated hugely, to the point where year on year it’s really quite hard to know which ones to choose.”

When pressed on whether there is anything about Christmas music he would get rid of, he says: “I could do without “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”...  Playing it time after time, as I have as a cathedral organist, you’ve really had enough.”

Jamie W Hall, who sings bass with the BBC Singers, told me that there’s room within the traditional repertoire to push the boundaries a little. “Clashing [notes] have become, from the mid 20th century onwards, almost like easy listening anyway. Just spicy enough to make you prick up your ears, but not too much.

“You can instantly tell the difference between the good schmaltz,” he continues, “and the ‘I can’t believe it’s not Rutter’ stuff. It’s very easy on a Monday morning to be quite scathing about that kind of music, but come Christmas when you’re singing it, it’s actually good fun. It’s the only time of year when that’s allowed.”

This year, the singers and musicians who make up Britain’s choral music establishment will be thinking of something other than just candles and chorales in the run-up to Christmas. In September, Sir David Willcocks – generally agreed to be the most influential choirmaster of his generation – died at the age of 95. In many ways, Willcocks was the man who invented the way that the British Christmas sounds, through his seasonal compositions and passion for broadcasting. In the 17 years he spent as director of music at King’s College, Cambridge he put the broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at the heart of midwinter musical programming. There was a precision and a brightness to everything he did which bestowed both joy and calm on all who listened around the world.

It’s perhaps less well known than the image of the King’s choristers in all their crimson-cassocked glory but Willcocks was also the composer of several now-standard treble descants used on top of the final verses of carols such as “Once in Royal David’s City” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. They are very high and unexpectedly modern-sounding, producing a delicious tension with the familiar melody beneath. His best and most enduring effort, however, is in the descant for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. It isn’t until Midnight Mass comes to an end and the sopranos soar into the unexpected dissonances in the final refrain that I feel that Christmas has really begun.

You can listen to all six shortlisted entries for the Radio 3 Breakfast Carol Competition 2015 and vote for your favourite here. Voting closes on 22 December at 5pm, and the winning carol will be performed live on Breakfast on 23 December

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special