Christmas music with a twist

Jack Pepper
Monday, December 5, 2022

Jack Pepper curates a playlist of the best arrangements of festive favourites from carols to jazz hits

Christmas may feel comfortingly familiar, but change and evolution sit at its heart. Christmas traditions are an accumulation of pagan rituals, Nordic festivals and Victorian tradition, and the music of the season is a striking composite too.

Arrangements have long been at the heart of festive pieces. Most wouldn’t even be known in their ‘traditional’, ‘original’ form, without the help of arrangers. Ralph Vaughan Williams is surely among the most famous; preparing the 1906 English Hymnal, he collected a folk tune from a 73-year-old manual labourer in Surrey – a folk song originally about visions of hell! – and paired it with the words O Little Town of Bethlehem (RVW collected over 800 folk songs, and you can sample his festive contributions as arranger and composer on ‘A Vaughan Williams Christmas’ (Albion Records, 2018)). Many of the carols now deemed ‘traditional’ are, in their most familiar form, arrangements.

‘Traditional’, then, doesn’t mean fixed…

Most have evolved over the years. At least four people and two countries across more than a century were involved in making Hark! The Herald what we sing today. Charles Wesley was walking to church on Christmas morning in 1739 when the ringing of church bells inspired him to write the words ‘Hark How All the Welkin Rings’; these words were set to music, and there it lay until the 1850s, when an English organist decided to divorce the words from the original tune and pair them with a melody by Felix Mendelssohn. The new tune had been written 16 years before, to celebrate 400 years of moveable type (how festive). So… it took 127 years for the hymn we know and love to take its present form. ‘Traditional’, then, doesn’t mean fixed…

In its earliest form, a carol was simply a dance with song, performed by peasants; they were raucous, they were rude, they were real. It’s fitting, then, that figures from across history have been able to put their own unique mark on this music: what could be a better expression of our common humanity?

If Christmas is about the passing of time – a handshake across the centuries – and about the coming together of different people, what can summarise this better than music? Here’s a playlist of the best Christmas arrangements, curveball carols: expect the unexpected with these twists on festive favourites…

I Saw Three Ships arr. Will Todd

St Martin’s Voices / Will Todd Ensemble; ‘Christmas In Blue: A Christmas Choral Celebration from St Martin-in-the-Fields’, St Martin-in-the-Fields, 2013


The hope and joy of Christmas are captured perfectly in this dance-like carol, the arrangement building inexorably towards a blasting choral statement of the words ‘on Christmas Day’. The ‘Christmas In Blue’ album presents jazzy twists on carols, a festive extension of Will Todd’s admirable work bringing jazz and classical together in original pieces like Mass in Blue and Jazz Missa Brevis. An experienced arranger, his take on Amazing Grace was even featured at the 2012 Inauguration Service of Barack Obama.

Todd’s version of I Saw Three Ships is a strikingly contemporary twist on a tune that was first published in the 1600s. It’s believed to originate from an English folk melody found in Derbyshire and it would have been sung as early as the 1500s. With Todd’s jazz twist, old meets new and the centuries melt away…

Bryan Kelly – A Christmas Celebration, 5th mvt: On Christmas Night

Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Barry Wordsworth (cond); ‘Bryan Kelly: Orchestral Music’, Heritage, 2014

This is the fifth and final movement of a set that draws on six carols, and was designed as a sequel to the composer’s popular Improvisations on Christmas Carols. It’s appropriate that Bryan Kelly studied under Gordon Jacob, himself a master arranger (sample Jacob’s playful take on Jingle Bells…). In this festive medley, Kelly treats instruments like the lights and baubles on a Christmas tree (glockenspiel, piccolo, horn and harp form a magical opening combo), and we’re dazzled with colour and character. Indeed, such brightness is often found in Kelly’s work; just sample the Hercule Poirot caricatures in the Whodunnit Suite (complete with sketches of imagined characters Colonel Glib and an actress called Lavinia Lurex).

In Dulci Jubilo

The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin / Desmond Earley (cond); ‘Be All Merry’, Signum, 2020

One of the joys of an arrangement is how a centuries-old piece can be made to sound so contemporary. In Dulci Jubilo was written by a monk in 1328 (he claimed a vision of an angel had come to him in the night and ordered him to dance); in this arrangement, though, the atmosphere resembles a gentle pop song. Lilting triple time becomes a foot-tapping four, and the title line returns repeatedly as a kind of chorus hook.

Deck The Halls arr. Gordon Langford

The King’s Singers; ‘Joy to the World’, Signum Classics, 2011

A rhythmic riot. The voices slide, and the arrangement plays with long and short notes, rhythmically wrongfooting us to take us by surprise. At one point, the performance even descends into bleating and shouting. Since a performance is all about accurately realising the words and meaning of a piece, why would you sing a party song like this with anything but a sense of ridiculous abandon?!

The playfulness of this reading only reflects the party-like origins of many festive favourites, which were often drinking songs or peasant dances: in a word, celebration. It was only in the Victorian Era that an image of sober piety developed around many of these melodies! Case in point: Deck The Halls was originally a 16th-century Welsh folk song whose words extolled the physical beauty of a lover. ‘Bosoms’, ‘love’ and ‘kisses’ featured in the original text; it’s far from a sacred hymn of praise…

Mike Batt – A Christmas Overture

London Symphony Orchestra / Mike Batt (cond); ‘Mike Batt: A Classical Tale’, Dramatico Entertainment, 2015

Childhood Christmases for Mike Batt involved busking around the local council houses, playing carols on his accordion (apparently, a bucket of water was thrown at him on one memorable occasion). It’s appropriate, then, that years later, he scored a UK Number 2 festive hit with A Winter’s Tale, written to express his longing for a woman he loved but who was going to live in Australia (side note: they have been together happily ever since). There are many strings to Batt’s bow, including orchestral work as conductor, composer and/or arranger with the likes of the Royal Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony Orchestras. Here, Away in a Manger sits at the heart of his orchestral festive meditation.

O Holy Night

Simon Mulligan (pno); ‘Christmas At Steinway Hall’, Steinway and Sons, 2017

Opera master Adolphe Adam here sets an 1843 poem by Placide Cappeau, who had written the words to celebrate the renovation of his local church organ. The song, then, is being taken back to its roots at the keyboard with this piano take from Simon Mulligan. A swaying left-hand and tastefully embellished melody lend the piece a more relaxed feel; it’s like we’re eavesdropping on an improvisation.

Frank Loesser – Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Albrecht Mayer (ob) / The King’s Singers; ‘Albrecht Mayer and The King’s Singers: Let It Snow’, Deutsche Grammophon, 2013

Oboe and voices put a new spin on what began life as a party song. Frank Loesser wrote this piece to perform with his wife at Hollywood parties; the pair premiered it at their housewarming bash in 1948. Such was its impact that the guests insisted they repeat it several times; Lynn Loesser later recalled that she and her husband were subsequently invited to all the greatest showbiz parties for years, off the back of this song. Frank Loesser even confided to her that he feared he would never write another song as good. Listening to this arrangement, you can picture the playful husband and wife duo – represented here by oboe and choir – and the coy back-and-forth that proved such a creative inspiration.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson – A Carol Symphony, 1st mvt

City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland (cond); ‘Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony’, Naxos, 2002

He’d written his first symphony by the age of 13, but pre-existing Christmas carols would form the basis of his most famous. Hely-Hutchinson’s four-movement A Carol Symphony is based on five carols, and in this opening movement, swirling strings surround a brass statement of O Come, All Ye Faithful. It channels the sound and spirit of Bach’s chorale preludes, adding counterpoint to the familiar melody (evidence of the composer’s fruitful study with the noted academic Donald Francis Tovey): a mince pie becomes a multi-layered Christmas cake. The piece is also doubly celebratory, since Hely-Hutchinson was born on the 26th December 1901.

Harold Darke – In the Bleak Midwinter (Arr. Matthew Knight)

Septura; ‘Christmas with Septura’, Naxos, 2016

This must be one of the season’s more unusual pieces, since it varies the melody with every verse. Harold Darke wrote it as a student at the Royal College of Music; three decades later, he spent the Second World War as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, whose Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols would frequently feature his setting of this Christina Rossetti poem.

Here, Matthew Knight arranges this winter contemplation for brass band; he makes good use of the power of brass instruments to let notes ring and swell, rising from the quiet surface in the brief moments the piece grows loud and strong. For the most part, however, the atmosphere is quiet. It proves that, sometimes, the most stirring arrangements are the simplest.

Silent Night

Joshua Bell (vln) / The Young People’s Chorus of New York City; ‘Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends’, Sony, 2009

Violin and voices wrap themselves around eachother in this haunting meditation, proof that less can most definitely be more. I can’t help but think of the equally meditative origins of this piece (or at least how the stories tell it…). It was Christmas Eve in 1818, near Salzburg, and mice had eaten through the innards of a village church organ; the priest, Joseph Mohr, needed something for his congregation to sing at Midnight Mass, and so rapidly scribbled some words down, inspired by a pastoral visit he had made earlier that day to a mother and her ill child. Mohr then rushed to his organist friend Franz Gruber for the music. Fact or fiction? Regardless, Silent Night is regularly voted the UK’s favourite Christmas piece and has been translated into over 200 languages.

The hush and halo of sound that surrounds this recording for violin and voices also makes me think of the famous moment Silent Night was sung in the First World War trenches; 100,000 soldiers are believed to have participated in the Christmas Truce of 1914, and it is said to have been started by the singing of carols on a moonlit and frosty Christmas Eve night. Two nations at war put down their rifles to sing, on the battlefield. For once, there were no shells or rifle shots, but simply music: the best of silent nights.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen arr. Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland (pno); ‘A Concord Jazz Christmas’, Concord, 1994

Marian McPartland studied to become a concert pianist at London’s Guildhall School and went on to record classical repertoire like Grieg’s Piano Concerto. It was, however, with jazz, that she made her biggest mark, helping pioneer the teaching of jazz and presenting respected radio programmes exploring jazz piano.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen has inspired colourful arrangements besides McPartland’s, including dusky jazz tones from The Modern Jazz Quartet (‘The Modern Jazz Quartet: The Early Years’, Acrobat, 2019), a toe-tapping folk take from Phillip Keveren and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (‘Phillip Keveren: Christmas Reminiscence’, Burton Avenue Music, 2020), and a driving energy-fest from British composer Will Todd (‘Christmas In Blue’, St Martin-in-the-Fields, 2013).

Johnny Marks – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The King’s Men; ‘Twelve Days of Christmas: The King’s Men’, King’s College, Cambridge, 2016

This sunny favourite had rather poignant beginnings. Advertising copywriter Robert May was told that his wife was terminally ill with cancer; to comfort his daughter, he wrote a story called ‘Rollo the Reindeer’. His brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, then made the story into a song, which – when sung by cowboy singer Gene Autry – became the second-biggest-selling recording of the first half of the 20th century, second only to Bing Crosby’s take on Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. As well as referencing Jingle Bells, The King’s Men here even mimic a big band in the ‘instrumental’ section, taking us back to the song’s 1940s origins.

Malcolm Arnold – The Holly and the Ivy: Fantasy on Christmas Carols

BBC Philharmonic / Rumon Gamba (cond); ‘The Film Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, Vol.2’, Chandos, 2000

This is a masterclass in orchestration, from a composer who only last year celebrated his centenary. Malcolm Arnold penned this soaring fantasy in 1991, skilfully spotlighting different sections of the orchestra: a trumpet duet, a dance for the woodwind alone, as well as grand swelling tuttis. After The Holly and the Ivy, we encounter The First Noel, a piece commonly derided as the most banal of festive tunes; Arnold ensures we don’t get bored by adding spice to the melody with some unexpected and comical discords. Later we hear the Sussex Carol, and before that, Away in a Manger, plaintively sounded by the oboe with muted strings and glockenspiel: never has it sounded so romantic. With Chandos’s recorded sound as luminous as Arnold’s orchestration, these are Christmas carols in 3D…

Christmas Classics

The Band of HM Royal Marines Collingwood; ‘A Royal Christmas: The Band of His Majesty’s Royal Marines’, Royal Marines, 2019

A reharmonised We Wish You A Merry Christmas gives way to a rollicking Prokofiev Troika, complete with swirling polyphonic lines suggestive of a flurry of snow. It’s like a party for wind band, taking in everything from White Christmas to We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

With this medley, mixing carols with pop songs, we gain a sense of the enviable musical versatility of military bands; this is evident, too, on the album more broadly, which ranges from a swinging jazz-band take on Last Christmas to the poignant A Carol From Flanders. The latter uses narration to paint a picture of the moment German and Allied troops united on Christmas Morning in 1914 to sing Silent Night. That story is a powerful reminder that – wherever you are in the world, whoever you are, whatever instruments you have to hand, whatever the arrangement – the unifying power of Christmas and of music remains strong. We gather around music like we gather around a Christmas tree: that is one thing that will never change.


Jack Pepper is a composer, broadcaster and writer.

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