The Man Who Invented Christmas


Traditions are funny things.  When I studied at the University of St Andrews (the oldest university in Scotland, founded in 1410) there were no end of little traditions gleefully adopted by students and staff alike. Academic families, idiosyncratic dress codes, receipts written in Latin for gifts received, giant shaving foam fights etc. all added to the feeling that you were part of a long and noble history. The reality, of course, was that whilst some of these activities did have their origins in the dim and distant past, most had originated in the heady world of the 1960s before being adopted as long standing tradition.

Likewise, my childhood as a cathedral chorister was filled with traditions and events that you felt had been going on since the dawn of time Рor were at least as old as the mighty buildings you were singing in.

Last week saw the death of choral conductor and composer Sir David Willcocks.¬†¬†He reached the grand old age of 95, not quite as old as the cathedral but getting there.¬† It’s not an exaggeration to say¬†that, for¬† several generations of singers and even fairly passive listeners,¬†¬†David Willcocks invented Christmas.¬† For a young chorister,¬†Christmas¬†was a particularly special to be singing. The weight of tradition was felt more keenly than usual – in particular during that most magical of services, Christmas Eve’s Nine Lessons and Carols.¬† It certainly felt as if this wonderful piece of theatre had been with us forever.¬† It always started the same way – the cathedral shrouded in darkness and the lone voice of a boy singing Once in Royal David’s City, followed by biblical readings interspersed with choral and congregational carols; then ending with a triumphal rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.¬† As it turns out, regular Nine Lessons and Carols Services originate in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge¬†from 1918. The service isn’t even 100 years old!¬†More than that,¬†it wasn’t until the publication of a carol book in 1961 that the service became ubiquitous across the (Anglican) world.¬† It’s younger than my Mum!

David Willcocks, along with Reginald Jacques and latterly John Rutter, compiled Carols for Choirs in 1961 and Carols for Choirs 2 in 1970.¬† It’s hard to come across a choral singer anywhere who does not know, and speak fondly of the¬†‘green book’ and the ‘orange book.’¬† There’s a handy guide to the format of the Nine Lessons and Carols at the back, but more important than that they contain Willcock’s choral arrangements of all the “big” carols.¬† Once in Royal, O Little Town, Hark the Herald…. everyone who sings – literally everyone! – ¬†knows them.¬† All the harmonies, all the words.¬† And Willcock’s descants (the additional high countermelody sung by the sopranos in the final verses) are so ubiquitous and loved you can go the world over and here them sung with varying degrees of aplomb.¬† Try to imagine singing the refrain of O Come All Ye Faithful without hearing at least one person near you chime in with an enthusiastic Ohhh CUUUUUM!¬† I can’t imagine it!

So, a big salute to Sir David for creating a timeless tradition.  How many of those enthusiastic Ohh CUUUMers will have known the name of the man behind the soundtrack of their Christmas?

But what of next Christmas, and the following 50, or 150?¬† Will we all still be singing the same hymns, the same harmonies and descants?¬† Hopefully I’m not being too controversial when I say I’m a restless musician.¬† I get bored listening to,¬†playing and¬†singing the same old tunes year in, decade out.¬† Time for a change at Christmas?¬† Much as I love those old songs, harmonies and descants, I’m ready for some new traditions.

Ok,¬†maybe¬†next Christmas…


Upcoming Gigs

Some great stuff coming up!

Firstly, Bolton Symphony Orchestra’s American programme as discussed in my last post – this Saturday 16 September at Victoria Hall, Bolton 7 30pm

Bring On the Swing at the Cheadle Hulme Cricket Club annual dinner – Friday 9th October, 30 quid for 3 courses and some great live music!

Lostock at the Garrick’s Head, Flixton, Saturday 10th October.¬† Music starts at 9 30pm.¬† Pop down for a drink and a boogie!




The Saxophones of Rome

contrabass clarinet

I’ve been thinking a little bit about the arts of arranging and orchestration.¬† Conductor Ken Wood’s excellent blog’s latest article talks in detail about the merits and the legitimate reasons for rearranging great composers’ works.¬†

There’s some great stuff in there, like Schoenberg’s small ensemble arrangements of Mahler’s mighty symphonies – written in the years of austerity after the First World War.¬† Conversely there are also examples of Mahler’s upscaling of works by Beethoven to take advantage of the new large symphony orchestras and concert halls being built at the end of the nineteenth century.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have also been enjoying a magazine detailing the sterling efforts of the various composers responsible for the music soundtracks that accompany the BBC TV series, Doctor Who.¬† Those who know me know that this is a programme that’s very close to my heart (new series starts on September 19th folks!) – and I’m happy to say that I have a keen fascination with all aspects of the fiction and the production of the show including, naturally, the music.¬† Nowadays, composer Murray Gold has the full forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to play with, but back in the early days when budgets were tighter, composers had to be inventive with limited resources. Composers would either arrange music for a carefully chosen group of instruments chosen for maximum effect or wrestle with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s early synthesisers.¬† Whilst Delia Derbyshire’s realization of the theme music is worthy of a blog post of it’s own, arguably the finest incidental music composer the series had was Dudley Simpson.¬† His signature¬† of horns, cellos, bass and contrabass clarinets, combined with the aforementioned Radiophonic Workshop analogue beeps and hums,¬† created the unique sound pallet for the show throughout much of it’s original run.

Another notable score, was Radiophonic Workshop’s bonkers soundtrack for 1972 story, The Sea Devils – all realized on the workshop’s new EMS Synthi 100.

See below for a pic of Malcolm operating the synth.

synthi 100

The workshop weren’t allowed to compose for the series for 8 years after that…. Personally, I love it!


Much like the world of Science Fiction at the BBC in the 1970s, the world of musical theatre is another environment where composers have to work with a limited palette of musicians as a result of both budgetary and space restrictions.

Nowadays most professional shows are able to produce a big orchestral sound with the minimum of players ¬†by¬†playing a mix of live instruments combined with expert programming of synthesizer keyboards.¬† Sometimes in the amateur world, using these arrangements can produce mixed results.¬† Production of a credible sound in this environment is often less about the quality of the aforementioned keyboards and more about the way these sounds are mixed together with live musicians and singers.¬† Investment in a good sound designer often comes far too low on the list in the world of amateur music¬†theatre.¬† Likewise, choice of synthesizer patch¬†is, I¬†think, sometimes misunderstood.¬† To sound like a credible string orchestra takes more than just dialing up ‘Synth Strings 38’ on your Roland.¬† A down bow¬†at forte sounds¬†different from one at piano, which in turn sounds different to an up bow or a marcato or staccato note.¬† All these things are taken into account by the expert¬†Broadway and¬†West End arrangers.

Whilst it’s great that this technology, in the right hands, is available to create these wonderful rich scores on a fraction of the budget, it does to my ears, result in a slightly dull homogeneity of sound between different shows.

I do miss the ingenuity of theatre composers of the past – just like the Simpsons and the Schoenbergs of the world – creating a unique soundworld from a quirky group of well chosen instruments.

The Musical Directors of amateur productions often¬†have to make considered decisions on how best to cut down the lavish orchestrations of the shows they are putting on to match the lineup of musicians they have, again¬†dicated budgets or theatre size.¬† I don’t MD many shows these days, but the Doctor Who magazine did remind me of my last swim into these waters.¬† It talked about the, perhaps unusual, choice of composer Raymond Jones to use saxophones in scoring a story set in ancient Rome.¬† The explanation was¬†that¬†combination of ¬†saxes with other brass instruments could produce¬†a credible Roman fanfare sound.¬† The fact that sax players are able to double on a number of other instruments also provided a wide variety of tonal¬†colour in a small ensemble.

I had to make some similar choices when it came to picking instruments to play in a reduced orchestration of Broadway classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.¬† The original score is for lavish full orchestra – large string section as well as full wind, brass, percussion and harp.¬† This was both a budgetary no-no as well as physical impossibility in the confines of the studio theatre we were performing in.

For me a big factor in the success and style of “Forum” as a show is that, yes it’s set in ancient Rome, but the style of the piece¬†spans the eras¬†of old style music-hall Vaudeville and a more modern satirical wordplay-heavy 1960s style of comedy. I decided if I couldn’t¬†have the widescreen Hollywood soundtrack sound, then, for the studio theatre, I would try to do the smallscreen TV version.¬† With composers like Dudley Simpson and “The Avengers” Laurie Johnson in mind I tried to evoke the 60s as best I could.

Firstly, I was keen that any synthesisers we used would only recreate the sounds of other keyboard instruments (to avoid the upbow, downbow articulation issues etc) and certainly no instruments that hadn’t been invented post early sixties.¬† Thus a combination of piano, electric organ, vibraphone, xylophone and in particular harpsichord (check out the Avengers soundtracks for making the baroque harpsichord sound funky) was used to play melodies, countermelodies, riffs and harmonies originally assigned to a whole bunch of different orchestral string and brass instruments.

Secondly, to push the Vaudeville aspect of the show, we filled the score and the script with as many ‘comedy’ percussion sounds¬†as good taste would allow: comedy timpani boings when¬† people fell over, swanee whistles, whip cracks when folk were slapped, rattles, sirens¬†etc…

Other than the percussion, the only acoustic instruments used were 3 clarinets.¬† Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones, the 3 together could blend to create a homogenous choral sound or were able to double on a¬†number of other instruments for variety of tone.¬† So my 3 clarinetists were also able to provide me with flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, alto and tenor sax as required.

The most contentious omission from my small band arrangement was the trumpet.¬† Peppered throughout the show are a number of fanfares played in beautiful 3 part harmony on strident brassy trumpets a-la the MGM Roman epics of yesteryear.¬† But that’s pretty much all they audibly¬†do.¬† No way was I wasting my precious instrument allocation on players that accounted for about 3 minutes of the show.¬† But the fanfares are important.¬† 1 Trumpet?¬† Not quite the same pomp and circumstance.¬†The feeble fart of the¬†synth trumpet?¬†Nah.¬†Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones I opted for the woodwind-faking-it-as-brass approach.¬† And quite frankly, 3 clarinets honking away at full volume sounded not bad at all.¬† Actually to this brass players ears, they were really rather impressive…


Upcoming Gigs

Delighted to playing for Bolton Symphony Orchestra again – 7.30pm at the Victoria Hall, Bolton, Saturday 26th September.

It’s the second outing this year for me for Bernstein’s West Side Story symphonic dances, but the real treat is the utterly barmy Variations on America by Charles Ives.¬† Check out the original version for organ below: