Everyone is furiously busy right now, so I will not deter you long – neither in script, nor choice of music – but I cannot let December pass without sharing my favourite Christmas piece: however busy you are, you will find calm and solace in this popular melody, which will be familiar to so many. The beauty of a seasonal extract is that it ought not to linger in your head much beyond the 25th, but no matter if it does.
Peter Cornelius (1824-74) is one of those composers who is destined to be most well known for one composition, his ‘Three Kings’, despite writing a number of other works. Although a friend of Wagner and Liszt, he did not really subscribe to the direction in which they sought to take music, which might have cost him a better reputation. But if you are going to be remembered for this one piece alone, you have surely made your mark.
The piece is performed regularly throughout Christmas, and there are countless recordings of it. I have stumbled on this wonderful version, which is over 50 years old, recorded in Guildford Cathedral. I cannot identify the bass singer, somebody no doubt will; but the clarity of the words is wonderful, and the voice itself is both rich and tender at the same time. I have played it frequently. What a gorgeous, addictive little gem this is! If you want to hear an, in my view, unequalled contemporary account, seek out the MS Society Christmas Concert 2016 on YouTube, to hear Gerald Finley singing it at St Paul’s earlier this month, it’s towards the end, (1:16:40) but the rest is worth a watch on another occasion. I think everyone there was utterly spellbound by Finley. (I’ll be amused if you can identify both characters behind him!)
One last observation. Cornelius wrote his words in 1859. The last verse concludes that if you can’t bring lots of goodies, “Offer thy heart”. Christina Rossetti wrote her much-loved carol ‘In the bleak mid winter’ sometime before 1872. Wonder where she got her idea for her last verse from?