The peak of the tradition in the 20th century has to be Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, composed in the depths of war in 1942. After the war, the rich stream of carols abated somewhat, though there are some fine carols from the Fifties and Sixties such as Anthony Milner’s Out of Your Sleep Arise and William Mathias’s Sir Christèmas. The real surprise, though, has been the upsurge of carol writing in the past 30 years. This is partly due to the efforts of some far-sighted choirmasters who’ve actually commissioned new carols, such as Andrew Nethsingha at St John’s College Choir Cambridge, and the late and much missed Stephen Cleobury of King’s College Choir.
Cleobury commissioned a new carol for the famous Nine Lessons and Carols every year from 1983 onwards, and persuaded some unlikely people to contribute, including the young Thomas Adès. The plaintive, haunted sideslipping harmonies of Adès’s Fayrfax Carol is absolutely typical of him, proving that composers don’t have to repress their natural musicality to write something appropriately festive or (in this case) rapt and mystical.
Even more striking is Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem, also commissioned by King’s College Choir. She sets a medieval Scottish poem exhorting Jerusalem to be “illuminated” by the wondrous events happening within its walls, in a way that captures the magic of the scene while obeying the ancient verse form.
Great piece by Ivan Hewitt on the British composers adding to one of our richest musical canons, the Christmas carol https://t.co/mF1DMPRbZT
— David Oldroyd-Bolt (@david_oldbolt) December 15, 2019