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ClassicsOnline Home » Roderick Elms: Festive Frolic - A Celebration of Christmas
Roderick Elms’ Christmas music ranges from charming and witty arrangements of well-loved traditional carols to new settings and festive orchestral pieces written for this very special season. The charm and immediate appeal of his music has been captivating audiences across the country for many years and this selection represents some of his most popular works, together with a few new ones such as the spectacular suite Wassail Down the Wind for organ and orchestra.
By David Denton
A Celebration of Christmas
Music has been capturing the magic of Christmas for centuries and some of the most beautiful texts and melodies have been written in celebration of this season. This present selection contains arrangements of some of the best loved carols together with new, festive pieces for choir, orchestra and organ. I have the privilege of spending my working life making music — mostly from within our London orchestras — and have enjoyed bringing together the combined brilliance and expertise of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Joyful Company of Singers for this recording.
Fanfare da Festa is a short celebratory fanfare for brass, percussion, harp, celeste and organ and was written for the Hallé Orchestra's 2001 Christmas concerts in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, conducted by Stephen Bell. The fanfare uses snippets of nine well-known Christmas tunes and was written to show off the hall's splendid Marcussen pipe organ. I have always been captivated by the sound of the organ and the English church-music tradition, and certain hymns have always been very special to me including O come, O come Emmanuel, based on a magnificent tune which, although first published in 1854, comes from a fifteenth-century Franciscan processional. The text, a series of seven "O Antiphons", is much older – possibly dating back to the twelfth century. I have arranged five verses specially for the combined forces of this recording, starting atmospherically with the solo tenor voice of Mark Wilde.
In the early 1990s I embarked upon writing a series of carol arrangements with keyboard accompaniment and an obbligato flute part. As so often happens, circumstances present certain opportunities and being fortunate to have a wonderful flautist, Carolyn Wheadon, in my church choir, it became something of a tradition that at each year's Carol Service I would arrive with a new carol arrangement. In this way the first set of Three Carols came to be published in 1995 by Camden Music, starting with that most graceful of carols, Gabriel's Message, continuing with the gentle Rocking and concluding with a lively romp through as many keys as feasible by way of Angels from the Realms of Glory.
Ideas often come about as a result of chance conversations and I remember a colleague suggesting that it would be fun to arrange Bach's Sleepers Wake! (Cantata 140) as a feature for the horn. I have always been very much in sympathy with the French horn and have written a number of pieces for the instrument, so I set about this arrangement with enthusiasm. I decided to turn the traditional concept upside down, and in this and its companion piece Sheep may safely graze (Cantata 208), the strings are the continuo section, the chamber organ plays the oboe and flute parts respectively and the horns play the tenor chorale. The charming Cherry Tree Carol has always been a particular favourite and it became the new flute-featured carol for 2003. The flute part of all the carols remains important in their orchestral versions and is played on this disc by Karen Jones. One of the newest arrangements in this compilation, Away in a Manger, actually started life back in the 1970s but has been reworked in a rather more contemporary style, incorporating a tenor solo for the middle verse.
It had always seemed a shame to me that the organist is so often the work-horse of Christmas concerts and rarely has a chance to contribute anything seasonal with the orchestra that will really show off the many facets of the instrument. I therefore started work on Wassail down the Wind – a suite of "Three Drinking Songs for Organist & Orchestra". The term "wassailing", coming from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "good health", has been described as "a riotous festivity characterized by much drinking". In reality, however, it was the practice of going from door to door singing carols and requesting wassail or some other form of refreshment in return. I have no idea whether there is a Boar's Head, (in) Coventry but the first movement, displaying the power of the organ from the opening bars, is based on a quirky transformation of the 'Coventry Carol' which builds to a climax where the opening of the 'Boar's Head Carol'is triumphantly sounded. The middle movement, Merry Gents, features a satirical reworking of 'God rest you merry, gentlemen', beginning and ending, by way of a huge climax, in a rather lugubrious manner as the "wassailers" struggle to find their next point of hospitality, realising all too soon that the church clock is striking midnight. Revitalised by refreshment, they take on a new lease of life in Wassailing in the Dark, a lively movement based on the carol tune 'Here we come a-wassailing'. Despite some flagging spirits in the middle, and a somewhat wayward organist who seems totally unable to find his place, they all romp to a very merry conclusion! I wrote this movement as a tribute to the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2003, its fiftieth anniversary year. The first performance was broadcast live from the BBC's Maida Vale Studios with myself doing battle on the ageing Compton organ.
Following hot on the heels of Three Carols came Three More Carols, again featuring a solo flute in the non-orchestral versions. This set opens with The Coventry Carol in more traditional guise, beginning and ending with the distanced beauty of the sopranos of the Joyful Company of Singers. The middle carol of this set, Silent Night, must surely be one of the best loved of all Christmas carols and appears here in a version affording the alto section the opportunity to shine in the middle verse. The final carol, In Dulci Jubilo, is an upbeat arrangement which allows the flute to be prominent even in its orchestral version.
In 2006, the London Borough of Redbridge celebrated thirty years of its biennial choral festival at London's Royal Albert Hall — nostalgic for me as I was the organ soloist at the first festival in 1976, which was also the first occasion on which I played the mighty Willis organ with its (now) 9,999 pipes. In writing Festive Frolic to mark the occasion, I was asked for a short celebratory piece to include the assembled forces of symphony orchestra, junior and secondary choruses and, of course, the organ. It was suggested that I avoid a religious text in view of the multi-faith make-up of the performers, so the text contains no real words. I consulted friends Brian Kay and Lindsay Benson and came up with an underscore based on "scat" — essentially meaningless. Sections in the original which used hand-clapping from the junior choirs are replaced here by the seasonal sound of massed jingles.
Sleep, sweet babe! (Dormi Jesu) is a gentle lullaby for tenor and orchestra. The text is set to a melody derived from the slow movement of my Concertino for Celeste. I arranged We Three Kings in 2005 for a performance in London's Barbican Hall given by the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor and the English Chamber Orchestra. It seemed to me that all that present-giving must have led to a bit of a party so this new arrangement ends with something of a musical knees-up!
My arrangement of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was commissioned by Raymond Gubbay Ltd. for its annual, nationwide Christmas festival. My brief was for an orchestral arrangement with optional vocal parts and it has become something of a showpiece for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave the first performance in the Royal Albert Hall in December 2004. It has an underlying Latin-American flavour and romps to a boisterous conclusion by way of numerous jazz-based interjections.
This album is dedicated to my mother with much love.
© Roderick Elms 2007
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