originally published in Limelight Magazine
'Tis the season
After 20 years living in Australia, there's one thing I have still not accepted: hot weather at Christmas. Well, I've accepted the weather (it's difficult to deny it), but I find it impossible to summon much Christmas spirit without at least an outside chance of snow. I'm told that on Christmas Day 1939 it actually did snow in the New South Wales Southern Highlands where I now live, but this has never seemed likely to happen since I've been here. I spent last Christmas with my wife's family in south-eastern Finland where there was sufficient snow to compensate for the previous 19 Australian Christmases, but I suppose this year Christmas lunch will be prawns and mangos on the veranda again.
It's only early August as I write these words, but recently I've been thinking about Christmas a lot. I am composing a sequence of carols for male voice choir, based on four medieval carols. Not only should Christmas, to my mind, be cold, but it should also have something medieval about it. I don't know why. I suppose my old music teacher must have foisted a lot of medieval carols on his students, because whenever I try to imagine music for Christmas, I hear lots of parallel fourths and fifths and “lully, lullay”.
Actually, the words in this instance are in Latin, making the piece more useful internationally than a bunch of carols in medieval English would be. The piece is intended, in the first instance, for my father-in-law's choir in Karelia, and herein lies a challenge less easily overcome than that of the language barrier. The gentlemen of Vuoksen Mieslaulajat are mostly of a certain age, and only a handful of them read music. Their last regular conductor left over a year ago. But when I heard their annual Christmas concert last December their apparent enthusiasm was such that it made me want to write them a piece. There is, I realise, every chance they will never perform it—the sudden appearance in the mail of this unfamiliar music will be quite unasked for—but it remains my task to write the piece in such a way that the challenge, should they chose to accept it, can be met with a minimum of grief.
And that, in turn, is a challenge for me, as for any composer temporarily abandoning professional musicians. Amateurs, by definition, love music, but they are easily intimidated. Now you can intimidate professional musicians, too, but they are being paid to be there; intimidated amateurs will stop coming to rehearsals. So the music mustn't be too difficult.
But the opposite is also true. You can bore—or even insult—amateur musicians by making things too easy for them. Whether composing for a children's choir or elderly Karelian men, it is essential to tread the line between what is too demanding and what is too facile. There should, for instance, be some music that can be learned and sung almost immediately—one chorus, say, that half way into the first rehearsal can be belted out with a degree of gusto. As a rule, I would say that any passage of music that has been tackled at three rehearsals and is still proving intractable is likely to discourage the singers. There should be enough difficulties to keep the thing interesting, but they have to be difficulties that can be overcome, otherwise the singers will lose interest.
The other trick to composing for amateurs (and, by the way, this goes for orchestras and brass bands and recorder consorts as much as for choirs) is harder to bring off, but all the more satisfying when you succeed. Benjamin Britten always managed it. In Australia today, Stephen Leek often manages it. The music, when performed, should sound at least as hard as it actually is. As an amateur musician, there is no point in putting in all that effort if the audience isn't impressed! The trick is achieved by making the individual parts rather easy—at any rate, attainable—while the combination of these parts produces a few complex sounding chords or surprising cross-rhythms. Few things please an amateur performer more than an impressed audience.
And so it's back to the Middle Ages for me. I'm using not only mediaeval words, but also the original medieval tunes. But I'm scrapping the existing harmonies and replacing them with my own, including a few chords that, I hope, will have the families and friends of the singers in Vuoksen Mieslaulajat thinking to themselves, “I'd no idea they were that good!”
As for finding the necessary Christmas spirit to write these carols, it is easy enough to simulate that in a Southern Highlands winter. This early August afternoon, there are logs burning in the stove, it is three degrees outside and there is a big grey cloud headed our way. Perhaps it will snow.
© Andrew Ford 2003