In these troubled times, it is reassuring to know that there will always be Christmas music – from the sublime Carols from Kings to ridiculous Christmas pop songs which are played ad nauseum in shops (though less so this winter, since most shops have been closed!). Whatever your taste in Christmas music, there is a wealth to satisfy musicians’ and listeners’ appetite for it.
Composer Richard Blackford, a recent recipient of an Ivors Composer Award for his choral work Pietà (the world premiere of which I had the pleasure of attending at Poole Lighthouse last summer), has written a short piano piece ‘Christmas Dawn’, released today by Nimbus Records, which, I think, expresses a certain wistfulness in keeping with both the spirit of this strange year and the turning of the season, but which also has a charming warmth and tenderness, and an uplifting sense of hope for the new year.
Richard Blackford explains how the piece came about:
In November 2020 I was asked by Em Marshall-Luck, Founder-Director of the English Music Festival, to write a piece for her Christmas Garland concert at short notice. Having promoted a successful two-day festival in St Mary’s Church, Horsham, Em’s belief in the vital importance of offering live music-making during the COVID pandemic was stronger than ever. I decided to write a short, atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, in support of her….the festival and those who were willing to travel to Horsham to hear the music played live.
This attractive and very appealing piano miniature has a hymn-like quality, and begins with a simple lyrical melody over a chordal bass line. You can well imagine a SATB choir singing this, and I even found myself imagining words to fit the melody as I played it.
As the melody develops, the texture and figurations become more expansive. A brief contrasting section introduces ppp staccato chords in the treble, with an answering quaver figure in the left hand. Delicate and a little playful, it suggests snowflakes, the sparkle of Christmas lights or the excitement of children on Christmas Day. The main theme returns, this time richer and more joyful, and with a more florid accompaniment, before the music returns to the simplicity of the opening, closing with a prayer-like cadence and a brief, final sparkle in the last chord.
The piece has been recorded by pianist Simon Callaghan, who brings a persuasive warmth and spaciousness to the music. For those who would like to learn the piece, the sheet music is also available and I would say it is around Grade 6 level. There are a couple of tricky corners, including some large chords (which small-handed pianists could spread) and some passages of cross-rhythms, but the piece offers plenty of scope for expressive playing and I’m sure many amateur pianists would thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to its choral flavour, I particularly like the contrasting textures and some unexpectedly piquant harmonies and colourful modulations.
I hope the music and the video will give pleasure at a time when Christmas cheer is much needed. – Richard Blackford
Richard Blackford studied at the Royal College of Music London, where he was awarded the Tagore Gold Medal and the Mendelssohn Scholarship, then in Italy, on a Leverhulme Award, with Hans Werner Henze. He was subsequently first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford and later with the Brno Philharmonic. He completed his Doctorate at Bristol University, where he has also been Lecturer in Advanced Orchestration. His music, which includes three operas, two ballets and many works for orchestra, chorus and chamber ensembles, has been performed and broadcast all over the world and has been recorded on Sony Classical, Warner Classics, Decca, Signum and Nimbus labels.