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 – or 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…
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!