I have been a little pre-occupied of late, as we have just moved house, so the blog discipline has been found wanting. But it would be wrong to let the festive period pass without a reference to the season in some way, and so here are a few minutes – or more, if you wish – to sit back with your eyes closed and let out a contented ‘Aaah’.
It is most likely that you will have had your fill of Christmas carols by now, but this brief passage from my great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony is charm itself. I wrote about Victor, whom I never met on account of his early death at the age of 46 in 1947, in September 2016 (see ‘A bit of Fun’ or Hely-Hutchinson in the Search box). Victor was Director of music at the BBC at the time, and refused to turn on his radiators in his office during a bitter winter, for fear of it setting a bad example in straightened times. He contracted pneumonia and died.
While at the Beeb, Victor was instrumental in establishing the Third Programme, or what we now call Radio 3. He was a talented musician and knew all the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas by heart. Nowadays his compositions are rarely played, but his Carol Symphony always gets a healthy airing at this time of year.
My heart sinks when I see The First Nowell in a carol concert race card: too many verses and a slightly dreary refrain, despite some noble efforts to liven it up with descants. And yet it is by far my favourite passage in Victor’s symphony. I am attaching the whole piece here, just in case you are left with the urge to hear the rest, but for the purpose of this post I want to highlight the few minutes from 12:33.
We all have different visuals when listening to music and whilst I have no wish to influence yours, I am, nevertheless, going to give you a glimpse of mine here.
This is the scene I think Victor sets. A field under a starlit night, introduced with a few bars from The Coventry Carol which, in the minor key, evoke a mysterious mood. There is definitely a sense of something about to happen. But in a few moments, with the key shifting to major, and with the help of the harp, the listener is soon assured that this is a moment not of fear, but of magic, of wonder.
In come the violins with the theme of The First Nowell, soon joined by weightier strings and dancing woodwind, culminating with the brass underlining the emphatic statement “Born is the king of Israel”. It’s a wonderful piece of orchestration. Calm returns with The Coventry Carol and it’s not hard to imagine a group of shepherds rubbing their eyes, each wondering who is going to be the first to ask “Did you see that? Did you see that? ”
That’s what comes to my mind, anyway.
If you’ve still got to wrap those presents, or need something uplifting during other countless festive chores, play the whole piece – it’s good, uncomplicated stuff, with moments such as the above, of real charm.
Manuscriptnotes (and its staff of one) wish all its readers a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!