In Summer 2005 I left my college teaching post to allow more time for composition – and the first piece I wrote that summer, with my new-found freedom, was a Christmas carol, ‘Glory to the Christ Child’.
This piece alternates a rhythmic and asymmetrical refrain (harmonised differently on each appearance) with a lovely medieval poem, ‘Out of the Orient skies a blazing star did shine’. The last line of each verse of this poem refers to the baby Jesus: ‘A blessed babe divine’ in the first verse, ‘This blessed babe did rest’ in the second, and ‘Born is this new king’ in the third – and the change of mood occasioned by these words enabled me to end each verse with slow moving chords: calm and peaceful in verses 1 and 2, joyous in verse 3. Then I realised that by ending the piece with a repetition of that calm mood, repeating the words ‘The blessed babe divine’ I could contrast the joyous celebration of the refrain with the promise of peace that the Christ-Child brings, and thus the carol assumed its overall shape.
But I still wasn’t quite sure of the notes! (that often happens – and there’s still one in this piece I wish was different now) and in particular the choice of the chords in those final peaceful bars gave me some difficulty. There’s a passage in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ where a girl draws a picture of a young lady about to jump off a cliff with three pairs of arms in different positions, with the intention that she would erase two pairs when she has decided on the best one to keep. I felt a bit like that when, on a hot summers afternoon at an ABCD conference, I spread out three versions of those final bars on the grass in front of several members of the OUP staff to seek their advice. Advice was duly given and the piece was complete!
It’s become one of my most-performed carols. It was sung by the choir of Kings College Cambridge (director Stephen Cleobury) at the Nine Lessons and Carols service broadcast on Christmas Eve 2007 and 2008, and it was wonderful to hear it in that magnificent setting. And this year it has been chosen by The Sixteen (director Harry Christophers) as the title carol to their UK Christmas tour – so I am really looking forward to hearing that!
There are several performances on YouTube: some of them are not very tight or accurate rhythmically and thus rather unexciting, but here is a good one from an Italian choir. and here is another good one from the OUP website.
And there is also an excellent EMI Kings College Cambridge CD with it on, though I don’t think it’s currently available.
Here is a link to the page about this carol on this site, which contains publisher and recording details.