New Music At Christmas: A Playlist

Jack Pepper
Friday, December 15, 2023

Jack Pepper curates this guide to the finest contemporary Christmas pieces

New Music At Christmas Playlist

It might sound odd, but what often strikes me about Christmas is just how old it is. Some of these traditions stretch back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Just look at the iconic service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge; in a chapel whose foundation stone was laid in 1446, we watch a service that has run since 1880 and began formally in 1918, and been broadcast annually (with only one exception) since 1928. Within this single service, we see the old and the new side by side: last year presented JS Bach, Messiaen, William Lloyd Webber, Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen. Arguably no concert programme through the rest of the year can present the historical and stylistic telescoping that a festive one can. Just as a descant adds new sonic tinsel atop an age-old musical tree, Christmas music – much like classical music more broadly, and the season itself – represents a unique conversation between past and present.

There’s Hark! The Heralds and Silent Nights aplenty in carol services and concerts this month, but what of more recent musical gems? Here’s my guide to some of the finest contemporary festive pieces …

1) Errollyn Wallen Peace on Earth

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge / Stephen Cleobury

Christmas isn’t all jollity, just as the world is unfortunately not all goodwill, and increasingly it seems that modern composers are exploring this.

Setting her own words, Wallen uses the bleakness of winter to reflect a troubled planet. Wallen composed it during a piano improvisation, starting with the music, and at its heart is an ostinato: an unsettling repeated figure that, paired with clashing Es and E flats, creates an uneasy atmosphere. Peace is a wish hard fought-for.

This recording was one of Stephen Cleobury’s last, before his passing four years ago. It’s a poignant way to remember the man who helped lead the iconic Carols from Kings from 1982 until 2019. He helped introduce new carols from Judith Weir, John Tavener and Thomas Adès, but his championing of new festive contributions didn’t always go down well; having included Harrison Birtwistle’s The Gleam in 2003 – which asked the choristers to stamp their feet and shout – he received a note that read: ‘whoever commissioned that carol should be locked in a darkened room and never let out’!

2) Sally Beamish In The Stillness

ORA Singers / Suzi Digby

The ORA Singers are on a mission to commission: 100 new pieces from 100 living composers. So far, more than 60 pieces have been penned, and a mammoth recording project in 2017 brought together 24 modern works to create a musical Advent Calendar. John Rutter, Morten Lauridsen, Owain Park and Cecilia McDowall were among the contributors, plus this stunningly understated piece from Sally Beamish. Setting original words from Katrina Shepherd, Beamish beautifully captures the peace and quiet of a small snow-clad parish church. Set for SATB choir, it is also welcomely accessible, so that choirs around the world can learn it; truly in the spirit of a Christmas carol, then, where everyone can take part.

For more festive music from the ORA Singers, check out ‘The Mystery of Christmas’ (Harmonia Mundi, 2018), which in their trademark fashion places old next to new; the medieval Coventry Carol sits beside Richard Allain’s contemporary resetting of its famous words.

3) Alexander Campkin Sleep, Holy Babe

Blossom Street / Hilary Campbell

Campkin turns 40 in 2024, a fitting chance to celebrate a trailblazer. In 2017, he became the first-ever Composer-in-Residence for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) inspiring BSO Changemakers’ Programme, writing new pieces for BSO Resound; this, the professional disabled-led ensemble that in 2017 became the first such group to perform at the BBC Proms. Originally a viola player, Campkin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis aged 17; in his own words, ‘MS changed my life. It stopped me playing viola. But it certainly didn’t stop me composing.’ His music has since been performed everywhere from London’s Southbank Centre to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

Campkin has written festive music for his home at the BSO; his Tommy’s Carol was commissioned by them and premiered at their ‘Celebration of Christmas Carols’ in December 2019.

Here, though, Campkin sets words by Edward Caswall, in an album of festive lullabies old and new; to sample the former, try Richard Pygott’s Quid petis, O Fili?, a piece found in Henry VIII’s festive music collection.

4) Nigel Hess A Christmas Overture

The Central Band of the Royal Air Force / Nigel Hess

2023 has been a big year for Nigel Hess; not only did he turn 70 in July, but the year had barely started when, in January, he received a phone call from Buckingham Palace, asking him to be one of the 12 contributing contemporary composers to the May Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. The King had requested three composers put their take on one of his favourite hymns, the Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision; Hess worked alongside Roderick Williams and Shirley J Thompson in what proved a musical baton relay, each composer writing a movement in a triptych.

He's no stranger to royal projects, having been commissioned by the-then Prince Charles to write a Piano Concerto in memory of his grandmother, which was premiered by Lang Lang in 2007 and earned Hess a Classical BRIT Award nomination. He’s a regular with military bands, too, having been commissioned by the Band of the Coldstream Guards and RAF Music Services. The latter take on this festive medley, which was commissioned by John Rutter for his 2007 Christmas Festival; Hess presents seven carols and fragments of others, a positive sonic paper chain of classics.

5) June Collin The Quiet Heart

The King’s Singers

Composer June Collin sets words by James Morgan, which speak of ‘the stillness of the night that Jesus came’, when ‘no blare of trumpets heralded his birth nor broke the wonted silence of the earth’. The piece was written for the Songster choirs of the Salvation Army, who this Christmas – as they do each year – will support vulnerable people and the homeless across the UK.

The King’s Singers recorded this album live at London’s Cadogan Hall in December 2010, and appropriately enough it was a week of heavy snowfall (unusual for London at that time of year). The recording aims to capture the spirit of the season, with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful The crown of roses, a jolly finale of Deck the Halls, and a rousing opening in the form of the Christmas spiritual, Rise up, shepherd, arranged by Carl Davis; just four months on from his passing – knowing what a famously affable and fun-loving man Carl was – this recording feels an appropriate way to remember him this Christmas.

6) Will Todd My Lord Has Come

Choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge / Anna Lapwood

Setting his own words, Todd’s 2010 composition was included in Carols For Choirs 5. It has been recorded widely, including by Tenebrae (‘The Call of Wisdom’, Signum, 2012). There’s a saxophone-tinged recording of this piece, too, courtesy of Gareth Malone’s Voices and YolanDa Brown (Gareth Malone: A Great British Christmas, Decca, 2016). And for more Will Todd, check out his toe-tapping jazz-inspired arrangements of classic carols in ‘Christmas in Blue’ (St Martin in the Fields, 2013).

The 2022/23 Season saw Todd collaborate with Welsh National Opera on Migrations, exploring everything from the migration of birds to the voyage of The Mayflower in 1620, through to the experience of Indian doctors working in the NHS today. Six writers contributed to the narratives, so that every story had a different mood and lens, requiring equal versatility from its composer. It featured a huge cast of over 100 performers, including a Bollywood ensemble and a community chorus; it was, in their own words, ‘unlike anything ever performed at WNO’. The Times newspaper hailed it as ‘a testament to the power of multicultural collaboration’.

7) Mike Batt A Christmas Overture

London Symphony Orchestra / Mike Batt

Mike Batt appears in many places each December thanks to his song hit A Winter’s Tale, penned with Tim Rice. Joining me on my Scala Radio show last Christmas, Mike explained that the song was written in tribute to the love of his life, the girl of his dreams who he thought he could never be with since she lived in Australia and he had to be in Britain. In November that year, David Essex had asked him to write a Christmas song; Tim Rice was due to pop in the next day to write with him, and so they paused the original idea of working on a musical about the Aztecs, and instead wrote a festive song that translated the emotional pain of Batt’s separation from his lover. Rice pitched the title – about 27 down the list, Batt told me! – and that sparked the music, which Batt poured his heart into. Happily, the lady in question is now Batt’s wife; nearly 40 years on, he described her as ‘the ultimate Christmas present’.

Batt is no stranger to classical music and the orchestral space; he has conducted the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony Orchestras in both classical and pop repertoire, and as a child he grew up watching John Barbirolli conduct the Hallé Orchestra in free concerts in Bradford. Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra is among his favourite classical pieces. Batt’s own classical and symphonic works are assembled on his album, ‘A Classical Tale’, including this memorable arrangement of familiar carols; a whimsical and tenderly-orchestrated God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen kicks things off, before giving way to an uplifting horn-led Away in a Manger.

8) Bob Chilcott Christmas Oratorio: Lo! How A Rose, e’er Blooming

Choir of Merton College, Oxford / Benjamin Nicholas 

Chilcott was a chorister and later a choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, before joining The King’s Singers. As a nine-year-old boy, he sang the treble solo that opens the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. In 2000, things came full circle when he was commissioned to compose for that Christmas Eve service; he has commented on how he was crippled with self-doubt at the thought, convinced he wouldn’t be able to write a piece strong enough for the occasion. He need not have worried, since the resulting The Shepherd’s Carol has since been a regular at the Festival.

Here, Chilcott’s Christmas Oratorio combines words from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke with poetry from the 1500s through to the 1800s; it includes four hymns for the audience to join the choir, as well as two powerful unaccompanied moments for the chorus. It was published in 2019, but recorded in June in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, and released last month.

Indeed, it was a bumper November for festive Chilcott recordings; Mary, Mother – written with Georgia Way – was released by St Martin’s Voices on the Resonus label, following its performance premiere last Christmas.

It will continue to be a packed festive season; July 2023 saw the publication of Carols For Choirs 6, a collection of 50 new carols compiled and edited by Chilcott alongside David Hill. Two come from Chilcott himself, including The First Nowell as commissioned by the Church of England as part of their 2023 ‘Follow The Star: Join The Song’ initiative; this has seen the Archbishops of Canterbury and York lead calls for a massed premiere of this piece by church congregations across the UK this Christmas, with the piece made freely available to download.

9) Thomas Hewitt Jones Lullay, My Liking

The Queen’s Six

Hewitt Jones brings new meaning to the phrase ‘this year has simply flown’… This autumn, he collaborated with the musicians of the Royal Air Force, their Central Brand commissioning and premiering Wings of Freedom in London and Cambridge; this symphonic wind band piece took the core values of the RAF as inspirations for each of the four movements. Then, in festive mode, Hewitt Jones recently revealed he has scored Classic FM’s new ‘The Christmas Story’, where Stephen Fry will narrate a retelling of the Nativity on Christmas Eve; the music is part of the suite, Incarnation, and draws on Silent Night for its conclusion.

For Lullay, My Liking Hewitt Jones selected a 15th century text, which he has tried to mirror in neo-medieval sounds and a folksy feel.

For an orchestral festive treat, sample his A Christmas Cracker (‘A Choral Christmas’, Decca, 2023), where the VOCES8 Foundation Orchestra showcase his fantastic orchestration and arrangements in reimaginings of Deck The Halls, Hark! The Herald, The Twelve Days of Christmas (which crops up in small fragments, a sort of Where’s Wally, along with snatches of Ding Dong Merrily On High) and O Come All Ye Faithful. It’s a vibrant orchestral dodgems game with seasonal favourites!

10) Laura Jekabsone As Joseph Was A-Walking

Emily Varney sop Timothy Peters ten Fellowship Ensemble of the National Youth Choir / Greg Beardsell

The National Youth Choir’s 2023 Christmas single, released on December 15, provides a modern setting of Henry John Gauntlett’s celebrated carol text, with music by Latvian composer Laura Jekabsone. In seven days, their 2023 Christmas Appeal raised nearly £66,000, exceeding their original aim of £60k; this will help support 22% of their membership, helping ‘give the gift of singing’.

It doesn’t end there. The NYC help lead a massed carol singalong at London’s Royal Albert Hall from December 16-24, alongside the Royal Choral Society and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This annual event is fast becoming a staple of the London festive calendar.

Music and Christmas have much in common: a conversation between past and present, a coming together of communities, a special kind of magic that fills you with feeling. What better way to celebrate Christmas than with music? From me and from all of us at Gramophone, have a very Merry Christmas and a thoroughly musical 2024.

Jack Pepper is a composer, broadcaster and writer:

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