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THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
In its original form, what I have called Classic Sleighride is one of several movements in Musical Sleighride, attributed to Leopold Mozart, describing a trip in the snow with some sections describing horses, and ladies, shivering in the cold, a ball and other events along the way. However what is the original version is something of a mystery as at least two published versions have different pieces of music for most of each work. What I have done is to take two versions of what is described as the actual 'sleighride' and made an ABA piece out of them embellishing the orchestration while still maintaining an 18th century-sized ensemble. It is even, in some circles, attributed to one Johann Georg Wassmuth and not Leopold at all. So authenticity takes a well derserved holiday - at least for a while.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London, the son of a West African father and English mother. Early in his life, his father, a doctor, unable to make a success in Britain, returned to Sierra Leone. The boy showed talent on the violin from the age of five, and by 1890, with generous backing from a Presbyterian choirmaster, entered the Royal College of Music, studying with Charles Villiers Stanford. Elgar called him 'far and away the cleverest fellow going among the younger men'. The Hiawatha trilogy made his name and performances were so plentiful that with Mendelssohn's Elijah it held second place only to Messiah in the hearts of choral societies the length of the country. He died in Croydon at the age of only 37 before his full potential as a composer could be fulfilled. His Christmas Overture appeared posthumously in 1925, arranged by Sydney Baynes, of Destiny Waltz fame; it features God rest you merry, gentlemen, and Hark the herald angels sing and is thought to have been put together from incidental music he wrote for a children's play called The Forest of Wild Thyme.
Jules Massenet studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where he later taught from 1878 to 1896. His operas, including Manon, were staple fare in houses all over Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but he also wrote songs, instrumental works and a series of orchestral suites called Scènes, usually based on regional or literary sources [Naxos 8.553124 and 8.553125]. The oratorio, or Sacred Legend as he dubbed it, La Vierge, dates from 1880 and contains the orchestral interlude, The Last Sleep of the Virgin, which remains virtually the only part of the work heard regularly today. It was later employed by Leighton Lucas as the prelude to his score for the ballet of Manon, which draws on Massenet's music from disparate areas of the composer's oeuvre, with the exception of the opera of the same name.
Philip Lane was born in Cheltenham and read Music at Birmingham University. Since giving up teaching after more than twenty years, he has been active as a record producer (with over a hundred discs to date), composer of music for the concert hall [Marco Polo 8.225185] and television, with many animation series including the immortal Captain Pugwash, and as reconstructor of classic film scores for new digital recordings. The idea for the Overture on French Carols sprang from a visit to Bayeux in the weeks leading up to Christmas in 2001 when carols were being played through loudspeakers in the streets to accompany seasonal shoppers. There did not seem to be an orchestral work based exclusively on French carols in regular use, so to mark a return to writing for the orchestra in the concert hall after a period of thirteen years, the overture was given its première by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Brian Kay, to whom it is dedicated, in Huddersfield Town Hall in December 2003. The carols employed include, in order, Il est né le divin enfant, Patapan, Noël nouvelet, Quelle est cette odeur agréable and Masters in This Hall. Some of these are brought back together in the final section with Quittez, pasteurs as additional counterpoint in the horns.
The apparent lack of a perennially performed version of The Night before Christmas for narrator and orchestra was a catalyst to producing one, initially prompted by seeing a picture-book version of the Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) poem on a friend's childhood bookcase. It was composed in just over a week in November 2005, deliberately lasts only marginally longer than it takes to read the poem alone and is scored for a modest orchestra in the best tradition of such fare, Peter and the Wolf, or Tubby the Tuba.
Otto Nicolai is remembered today almost entirely for the overture to his last opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor, but his output is a good deal more substantial, with four earlier operas, sacred and secular choral works, songs, chamber music, and orchestral works including two symphonies. In addition he is credited with founding the mighty Vienna Philharmonic. His Christmas Overture (Weihnachtsouvertüre über Vom Himmel hoch) only seems to have really come to light nearly a century after his death from a stroke at the age of 39. It is scored for orchestra with optional chorus doubling the brass declaration of the famous seasonal chorale in the final pages.
John Carmichael was born in Melbourne and studied at the city's Conservatorium, and later at the Paris Conservatoire before moving permanently to London in 1954, holding dual Australian/British citizenship. There he continued his studies with fellow Australian, Arthur Benjamin, and Anthony Milner. He acted as musical director of a Spanish dance company and later was in the vanguard of the music therapy movement. Among his recordings are concertos for piano, trumpet and flute, the last written for James Galway. In addition he wrote a suite for him based around the ski resort of Thredbo in New South Wales. Sleighride to Thredbo appears here in a version for small orchestra and reflects snow sports and alpine scenery as the ride takes in the winter slopes, with echoing horn and trumpet figures piercing the clear air.
Franz Liszt wrote his Christmas Tree Suite (Weihnachtsbaum) between 1874 and 1876. From the original twelve movements the English composer and conductor Anthony Collins published his arrangement of four of them, for strings and celeste, in 1952. The suite had been plundered some years earlier by Constant Lambert for the ballet, after Liszt, Apparitions.
Doreen Carwithen studied at the Royal Academy of Music and became the first student there to be selected for the Apprenticeship Scheme for composers to specialise in the study of film music, working closely with the doyen of film conductors, Muir Mathieson. She wrote the music for over thirty films, including the official film of the 1953 Coronation, Elizabeth is Queen. She became composer William Alwyn's second wife, devoting herself to him and writing little. In 1955, for her friend Wendy Toye as director and star, she composed the continuous score for On the Twelfth Day, a charming short film without dialogue which took the famous seasonal song absolutely literally (as John Julius Norwich does in his famous prose piece) to disastrous and comic effect. In 1956 it was Oscar-nominated in the category 'Best short subject, two reels' and the following year nominated for a BAFTA. The setting is an idealised snow-covered Edwardian square, and inside the house of Miss Tilly, the object of Mr Truelove's affections. Everything is brought to her door, and to her and her butler's increasing consternation, from a partridge in a pear-tree to twelve drummers drumming. In the film, 'choirboys singing' replace 'seven swans a-swimming' and snippets of 'Oh for the wings of a dove' are folded into the score. On repeated hearings and without the sight of unruly songsters the joke wears a little thin so in my reconstruction I have reinstated the traditional birds and given the lads the day off. In addition, the chorus parts are cued into the instruments for when no voices are available.
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