>Creative discipline, a vital component of writing for amateur choirs
My passion for choral music stems from being a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and later studying music at New College, Oxford. It is in my blood, and as a composer and musical director, I have written for singing groups of all shapes, sizes and abilities - for schools, youth groups and choirs.
At this time of year, the focus in schools, of course, turns to programming for Christmas Carol concerts, to creating a varied programme to inspire the singers and to entertain and move their audiences. A cappella carols allow us to enjoy the beautiful intensity of the voice, a round for the audience can generate a heightened sense of being a participator rather than simply a listener, and, I always think that a good dose of brass adds a sparkle to any concert. I first started writing carols in 1983 for the Denstone College Schola Cantorum, whilst teaching there and have continued ever since.
My first carol was a setting of Robert Herrick's "Ode to the Birth of Our Saviour" and the challenge was to write a work for a quality school choir that was also very accessible. It was an instant hit. With a new composition, the ability of the performers dictates the level of difficulty of the piece and the capacity of musical director and conductor dictates how far the boundaries can be pushed. I have always enjoyed these restraints, imposed on the creative process of writing for amateur groups: it pushes and inspires me as a composer. Knowing that the tenors are the smallest part of a choir suggests not to split them up, and not to push them above top G. Altos often get a rough deal, getting the most boring musical lines, so I make sure they always have something interesting to do.
As a result of this creative discipline, the collection of carols and rounds in Nowell! Nowell! (published by English Philharmonia) is an invaluable resource for amateur and school choirs. I have tried to encompass the whole spirit of Christmas in this collection, ranging from: the contemplative Dormi Jesu and There Is No Rose, to the celebratory Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; from the specific carols for Advent - Mary Is With Child, New Year - A New Year Carol and Epiphany - Three Kings Came Riding to the more seasonal such as Winter Round and Song of the Winter Wind.
Chris Williams writes carols which breathe new life into the standard Christmas Concert repertoire. There is scope for the grand gesture with full brass quintet or simple, understated items that work well in more intimate settings
Many of the carols in Nowell! Nowell! are a cappella; however, in the tradition established by David Willcocks in Carols for Choirs, I have included a brass quintet for six arrangements which adds to the sense of celebration. Discovering that the words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing fitted the wonderful Gavotte by Rameau, gave an opportunity to make a stirring arrangement – which whilst not being too demanding for the choir, presents the brass players with something a bit more meaty to play. And although written for quintet, the brass could easily be expanded to accommodate a larger group with the parts shared out. The quirky arrangement, Merry Christmas Cha-Cha-Cha!, started life as a fun number for Theatre Royal Voices, a learn-by-ear singing group that emerged from the production of "Union Street", a mega community musical play staged to celebrate the Millennium at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. Adding the brass has created a joyous finale for a Christmas concert.
We have loved doing Chris William’s Carols as part of our Nine Lessons and Carols in Gloucester Cathedral, and introducing the brass has brought a whole new dimension to the musical sound, and suits the acoustics perfectly. Hark the Herald has spectacular brass parts - the players always ask for that onen and we are working on the beautiful Falling Snow, which is a simple round, but tests the choirs’ tuning. When the brass come in it is glorious. Finally last year we did the majestic Three Kings Came Riding which has hauntingly beautiful brass parts, and finished the concert with We Wish you a Merry Christmas which everyone, especially the youngsters absolutely loved.