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ClassicsOnline Home » MANNING, S.J.: Manchester Carols (The) (The Manchester Carollers, Northern Chamber Orchestra, Tanner)
This new sequence of Christmas carols was written in 2007 by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy and composer Sasha Johnson Manning, and premièred in the same year. The Manchester Carols re-tell the Christmas Story for the 21st Century, celebrating a child’s birth and all that child was to become: a man who lived by a humble, selfless creed, championing the marginalised in a society which was, as it is now, fraught with political tensions. These carols are for everybody, the believer and the non-believer, people of other faiths and everyone wishing to join in the Christmas celebrations.
By Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide
By John Quinn
By Simon Thompson
The Manchester Carols
The Manchester Carols is a new sequence of Christmas carols, written in 2007 by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy and the composer, Sasha Johnson Manning.
For its première performance at the Royal Northern College of Music on Friday 14 December 2007, The Manchester Carols were performed by choirs from three city schools, (The Manchester Grammar School, Manchester High School for Girls and Withington Girls’ School), the BBC Daily Service Singers (aka ‘The Manchester Carollers’) and a special ensemble from the Northern Chamber Orchestra led by Nicholas Ward, with two flutes, two recorders, one oboe, one clarinet, one bass clarinet, double string quartet, double bass, and two percussionists who played a wide array of instruments including medieval bells, which once belonged to the Early Music expert, David Munrow.
The sequence re-tells the Christmas Story for the 21st century and adds to and extends the canon. In performance, these carols are inter-linked with a narration, which will, whether people have faith or not, re-define how it is listened to. The story of the birth of Jesus is a remarkable one on many levels—as a story of sheer human endeavour, and for many, how the Divine became human. These carols celebrate a child’s birth in exceptional circumstances, and all that child was to become, namely, a man who loved his fellow humans and who lived by a humble, selfless creed, championing the marginalised in a society where lives were often deemed worthless and where the area was, (as it is now), fraught with political tensions.
These carols are for everybody, the believer and the non-believer, people of other faiths, the curious and anyone wishing to join in the Christmas celebrations.
1. The Carol Singers’ Carol is really an introit, a scene-setter, an audience-warmer. In its lyrics are words commonly found in carols: Noel, fa la la, Gloria etc.
2. Mirabile Dictu is a lively macaronic carol which begins The Manchester Carol sequence proper. It invites people to join in the telling and singing out of the Christmas Tale. The phrase ‘mirabile dictu’ means ‘wonderful to tell’ and is the text for the six gentle and easy choruses. This carol has a freshness in its style which comes through the use of modal harmonies, giving it a timeless quality.
3. The Advent Carol takes the idea of Advent as a time of spiritual and practical preparation; the words portray the idea of the natural elements telling the Christmas Story to different instruments which, in the score, are introduced one by one, gradually adding to the choruses so that the music builds up into one big sweeping sound. The use and repetition of the word ‘Prepare’ has a comfortable quality which lends itself to easy access for the first-time listener.
4. Christmas Flowers is a gentle, pretty, lilting carol, which lists some of the flowers and plants associated with the Christmas season, and what they might represent. The chorus, echoing the daisy petal-plucking rhyme, ‘he loves me, he loves me not’, states the words, ‘He loves me, He loves me a lot’, which enables the listener with faith to interpret the ‘He’ as God.
5. Annunciation is a very atmospheric carol, and the forces here are reduced to enhance a sense of intimacy. A solo voice, accompanied by harp, describes the visitation to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, ‘a golden youth’, and how he tells her that she is going to ‘bear the Christmas
Child’, and what sorrow and joy lie ahead for her.
6. The Trees shows Joseph standing beside a different tree in each of the six verses, and asking what gift the tree will give him for the Child. Being a carpenter, he knows the nature and potential of the wood offered by each. The Apple tree will yield fruit, and the Cherry will offer wood for crafting a cradle etc. There is a heightened sense of darkness and foreboding when Joseph stands by the Blackthorn and Elder trees, knowing what they will offer, ‘thorns for a crowning’ and ‘wood for a cross’.
7. Let it be cold breaks the spell of the previous carol, although there is a double message within its lyrics. The first impression is of delight in all those simple joys that the Winter cold offers: snowflakes, visible breath in the air, the sound of carol-singing, candle-light, star-light etc. But there is a deeper message urging us to take care of our precious earth, so that these ‘cold’ joys may not become a thing of the past.
8. A Miracle is a heart-rending carol, offering the listener a real time for reflection and contemplation. It is really a prayer, a very powerful one, full of yearning and passion. At this point in the Christmas Story, we find an anxious Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary seeking shelter for the night as they arrive in Bethlehem. It makes us aware (in the midst of our busy preparation and merry-making) of all those who are suffering in our world. The lyrics don’t gloss over the subject, they list the many ways in which people suffer, bringing them graphically to mind, like the first century family away from home facing persecution from the authorities alongside so many other refugee families, then and now. The sentiment behind the words highlights the all too familiar stumbling-block which causes difficulty for many in achieving faith, namely, how hard it is to believe when so many innocents suffer. Yet this carol earns its place in the sequence, because we all need a reminder now and then of the darker side of the world in which we live.
9. An Angel is a bright and cheerful carol with an innocent quality. The words describe many of the sights associated with the Christmas Story (a bright star, a wise man, a mother holding a child, a manger, a donkey), and it depicts the excitement of the eager shepherds telling us that they too saw an angel; however, threaded through the lyrics lie prophetic references to the blood that will one day be shed.
10. New Boy Born is a carol of true celebration and is steeped in the rich harmonies of the Jewish tradition. Its driving momentum is established from the very first note, and the listener is caught up in it immediately. There are three verses full of powerful imagery describing many of the forces (elemental and others) from which this ‘new boy’ was born which gives plenty to ponder on for the Christian and non-believer alike. Although this carol bursts with joy and celebration, the minor key in which it is set ensures that we keep in our awareness (even if only subconsciously), the profound and solemn magnitude of this birth. Instrumentally, it is the two treble recorders that have the starring rôle in this carol, duetting and weaving in and out of the score’s texture, bringing with them that
trusty, familiar and innocent air of purity. [There are many reasons for what some may see as the unusual inclusion of recorders in most of these carols.
For many, the humble recorder has an association with the classroom and there the association usually ends. I wanted to give it a new platform in order to display the
wealth of tonal colour a recorder can offer, and maybe change or enhance the listener’s perception and acceptance of this fine and historic instrument.]
11. The Gold of Straw tells of the gifts of the three wise men from the unusual viewpoint of a robin in the stable. He sees each gift and though he notes the precious and royal value of each, he knows they would not be useful to him in the creating of a nest, so he turns instead to ‘the simple gold of straw’. Musically, this carol has the Celtic, folky feel of a barn dance which builds and builds until all singers and players have joined the dance and the offbeat drum drives the happy mood forward.
12. Mary’s Carol is scored for singers and piano only. It refers to the time when Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus have to leave Bethlehem and flee from Herod, who has already begun to search them out and is hideously slaying the innocents in his path. It is a loving and intimate carol, full of warmth and comfort, ‘No harm tonight to my small child.’
13. Each Child’s Name sparkles with joy and innocence as it celebrates the naming of children and all the possibilities therein and also marvels at the potential of each new life.
14. Call it Nazareth is a stirring carol which offers another sombre invitation (as A Miracle did) to think, before we leave for home ourselves, of the people whose homes are in those places of the world that are suffering war, famine or natural disaster. It is a very powerful carol, taking the idea of a new young family making its perilous way back home to Nazareth, and placing it in today’s world, where it seems nothing much has changed; we are still vulnerable and at the mercy of Nature or evil. The word ‘Nazareth’ is constantly returned to, and the names of other places create a chill in the heart, as scenes of situations associated with them spring vividly to mind. We are effectively taken on a roller-coaster ride of flashback images (Jerusalem, Bosnia, Baghdad, Darfur, Palestine), which leave us grateful for what we have, and as we hear the familiar word ‘Manchester’ sung, the rosy glow of Christmas returns, and we feel in some way we have earned it.
15. We Believe is the last carol in the sequence; there is a round in five parts along with a re-statement of ‘Ring out, ring out the city bell’ theme from the first carol, which all mixes together, creating a remarkable choral swirl of joyous sound culminating in a return of the Mirabile Dictu chorus, which gives a sense of completion to the whole sequence.
16. The Present Song is an encore, a fun piece made up of Christmas presents of all types from the edible to the furry. As The Twelve days of Christmas was, this is another carol of lists.
All who worked on these carols, librettist, composer, artist, singers, conductor and musicians, live and work in that great city. And so these are, and will for ever be, The Manchester Carols.
Sasha Johnson Manning
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