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ClassicsOnline Home » CHILCOTT, B.: Carols (The Rose in the Middle of Winter) (Commotio, M. Berry)
Bob Chilcott has been described by The Observer as ‘a contemporary hero of British Choral Music’, and his music is commissioned and sung by choirs throughout the world. His Christmas pieces, a number of which are heard here in première recordings, reveal his enthusiasm for recently written texts, to which he responds with acute verbal sensitivity. Commotio is one of the UK’s foremost chamber choirs, hailing from Oxford, where they have performed choral music of the 20th and 21st centuries since 1999.
Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)
The Rose in the Middle of Winter
I sang for eight years in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge—five years as a boy chorister and three years as a choral scholar. One of the highlights of the year was the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. Here, alongside the more traditional music, we generally sang a newly composed carol. It was always exciting to sing something new, but it would usually divide opinion and sometimes cause controversy not only amongst the singers but also amongst the many loyal followers of Christmas music. For many choirs the music they sing at Christmas is that with which they most closely identify themselves, so a lot of energy is given to their choices of Christmas repertoire. This means that many choirs are very open to the new, and the challenge for the composer is to create pieces which sit happily alongside the traditional.
I have written my fair share of Christmas pieces and a number of them are recorded here for the first time by Commotio. I have always enjoyed looking for new and more recently written texts to set, texts that sometimes come in at an angle on the well-known Christmas story. Four poems by Charles Bennett are specially written—Song of the Crib and Gifts for the Child of Winter were both composed in 2012, the first for the Micklegate Singers in York and the second for The South Bend Singers in South Bend, Indiana. The two other texts by Charles are Advent carols—The Advent Candle was written in 2011 for a consortium of ten choirs in the North West of England as part of an auction to raise money for the Association of British Choral Directors, and The Rose in the Middle of Winter was written for David Hill and The Bach Choir in honour of the 90th birthday of Sir David Willcocks.
Several of the texts of carols here were suggested—The Heart-in-Waiting by Keven Crossley-Holland was requested by the commissioner, the distinguished American conductor Philip Brunelle, and I wrote the piece in 2008 for his church choir in Plymouth, Minnesota. Les anges dans nos montagnes, known in its English version as Angels from the realms of glory was written in 2006 for the BBC Singers at the suggestion of the Singers’ producer Michael Emery. Two lovely texts by women poets were introduced to me—the first, The night he was born, from the poem The Thorn by Helen Dunmore was requested by Ben Nicholas in 2007 for his choir from Dean Close School and Tewkesbury Abbey. Philip Barnes, the conductor of the St Louis Chamber Choir, came up with the idea of combining the beautiful Emily Dickinson poem Before the ice with the Latin responsory for Christmas Day O magnum mysterium and I wrote this setting for his choir in 2012.
Two of the carols were commissioned as presents—the first, The shepherds sing, to a text by George Herbert, was written for Libby Buchanan and first performed in December 2011 in Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, London. What sweeter music, using extracts from the poem by Robert Herrick, was written for Libby’s daughter, Elizabeth, and first performed in Westminster Abbey in May 2012 by the Abbey Choir.
On Christmas Eve 2012 Alan Greaves, a church organist from Sheffield, was attacked as he walked to church for Midnight Mass. Sadly, he died a few days later, and soon after we heard of this I happened to come across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Bethlehem Star, that affected me in the light of this tragedy. I decided to set it in his memory.
Of the remaining single carols, Mid-Winter began life in 1994 as a carol for the Toronto Children’s Chorus. Silent night was arranged in 2011 for Carols for Choirs 5, the fiftieth anniversary tribute to the famous Carols for Choirs series published by Oxford University Press. The Shepherd’s Carol was one of the many new carols mentioned earlier written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. I wrote this in 2000 for the televised service of that year.
On Christmas Night, the central carol sequence on this recording, was written in 2010 for the choir of the University Christian Church in Austin, Texas. The idea was to write a set of pieces that outlined the Christmas story and, in the original performance, the movements were interspersed with appropriate readings. In this piece I have tried to do what I alluded to earlier, by combining new settings alongside traditional carol melodies.
I am grateful to Matthew Berry and Commotio for their hard work in bringing this recording to life, and to my former King’s Singers colleague, Nigel Short, himself now a renowned conductor, who produced the recording. Thanks must also go to Will Brown for sensitive and collaborative work as the sound engineer. I am delighted to have my music represented by this distinguished choir, which is based in Oxford, near to where I have lived for more than thirty years. I shall never forget the wintry recording days in April in Keble Chapel—it certainly felt like Christmas!
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