Piece of the week – how I came to write ‘A baby so small, a message so great’.

In 2000, I wrote a carol based on a published anonymous poem called ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’. (Co-incidentally, Bob Chilcott wrote a setting of the same carol in the same year). The poem begins:
We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.
(In my setting, as that the text was believed to be anonymous, I omitted the word ‘Lady’). Both Bob Chilcott’s carol and mine were published by OUP in the same year, mine under the title Hillside Carol.
Using an optional flute or treble recorder, as well as empty, bare, chords on the organ/piano part, I aimed to recreate the peacefulness and stillness of the night sky, later changing the character with the appearance of the bright star and by sound of angelic voices, and finally, in the last verse, reverting to the calm mood of the beginning as the shepherds bow down before the baby Jesus.
Then in 2009 the carol was proposed to be reprinted in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’ and it came to light that the poem was not anonymous at all, but by the Tasmanian poet Clive Sansom (1910-81). After some negotiation, permission was granted (despite my slight adjustment to the text), and the carol is now available in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’ with the correct author’s name.
However, in case permission wasn’t granted, I sketched out a new text of my own, in the same metre and telling the same story verse by verse, but using completely different words. It began:
The landscape was bare,
The snowfall had come:
Glinting across the whiteness,
A glimmer of sun.
and the last verse began:
A baby so small,
A message so great
.’
As things turned out, this text wasn’t needed for Hillside Carol, but it seemed a shame not to use it, so that was how A baby so small, a message so great came to be – a carol which tells the same story, but in a very different way. Although ‘A baby so small’ also begins with empty, bare chords, they are soon enriched; then the key suddenly changes as the star dramatically appears and then, as the music calms and subsides, the angels sing in the form of a descant over the main melody.

So that chance discovery of the correct author for Hillside Carol led to a new carol as well – and both are recorded by Selwyn College Chapel Choir (director Sarah Macdonald) on the CD ‘O Come Emmanuel’ (Regent Records)

Links (both include links to audio)
Hillside Carol (in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’) 
A baby so small, a message so great 

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