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.

Recommended

Download the track

Purchase the sheet music

I hope the music and the video will give pleasure at a time when Christmas cheer is much needed. – Richard Blackford

Meet the Artist interview with 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.

 

Guest post by Michael Johnson

Out of nowhere this morning, the ghost of John Cage and his creative genius visited me at a supermarket in Bordeaux, France. I was so glad to be back in touch with the old goat. It had been a while.

But along with a thousand other shoppers jostling for Yuletide goodies, I was being hammered by “Christmas Music”, a Muzak track of Jingle Bells and Silent Night (in English) as I emptied my wallet to bring champagne and foie gras to my home.

Suddenly I heard John whisper in my ear, “Tell them to play 4’33”.” Aha, I thought, that’s the perfect adaptation of a contemporary classic with the trashy earworms we must abide year after year after year. Is there any tune as trite as “Silent Night”? “Adeste Fidelis” and — oh no — “Little Drummer Boy” ! Are there any songs as perfect for the fine hand of John Cage? Silence was his byword, his bible, his autobiography.

I have trotted around the globe for most of my life, finally landing in Bordeaux, which seemed a safe haven from tacky popular culture and seasonal music-making. But it was another disappointment a few years ago to come face-to-face with musical globalization – American tastelessness transported into the heart of Southwest France, the home of Ravel, the birthplace of the Labèque sisters piano duo, the cradle of great writing and great thinking, Mauriac, Montaigne, Montesquieu. The home of soprano Natalie Dessaye, conductor Paul Daniel, and for many years, the adopted city of Roberto Benzi.

Hélas (as the French say), the greatness of the past is being swamped by the dumber tide of the present. Those of us who yearn for a Bach cantata (why not?) cannot even switch off the trash like a smart phone, the other plague of our time. Trivality is in the air, everywhere.

It’s hard to escape the earworm at this time of year, with shopping malls and public streets bombarding us. The less you like these tired tunes, the longer they hang around in the memory cells, circling the mind like fruit flies over an orange.

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia” that these awful tunes have subverted the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively. . . “as may happen with a tic or a seizure.”

Sacks quotes a patient recalling a bout of earworms. The song “Love and Marriage” took possession of the man for ten days, leading him to desperate efforts to shut it off: “I jumped up and down. I counted to a hundred. I splashed water on my face. I tried talking loudly to myself, plugging my ears.” It finally subsided, only to return when he told Sacks about it.

Funny. That just happened to me this morning while shopping.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

Illustration by Michael Johnson

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A selection of my favourite Christmas music, in no particular order

Corelli – Concerto Grosso No.8 “Christmas Concerto” in G Minor, Op.6: III. Adagio – Allegro – Adagio

Joubert – Torches, Op. 7a

Rutter – Adam lay y-bounden

Britten – There Is No Rose

Cornelius – The Three Kings

Traditional – Myn Lyking

Traditional – Personent Hodie – carol 14th c. Germany. Words from Piae Cantiones, 1582 – Arr. Holst

Rutter – Sans Day Carol, ‘Now the holly bears a berry’ (Traditional English Carol, arr. Rutter)

The Sixteen – Messiah – Chorus – For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Best wishes for the holiday season. Cross-Eyed Pianist will be back in 2013.