Commissions for new works usually come with suggestions or requests from the commissioner – length and scoring, of course, but also often other pointers: where the piece might fit in a concert, or suggested mood (celebratory, meditative, and so on), subject matter, standard of choir, what they like singing, and all kinds of other things, sometimes even a specific poem. These constraints are almost always a good thing as they give the composer a starting point around which to shape their musical ideas.
One of the strangest, and most useful, requests I ever received was twenty-five or so years ago when Peter Davies, a great mover and shaker in the world of choral music and commissioner of many pieces from me for various choirs, asked me to write a piece for a choir he then conducted – the Sawtry Chorale in Huntingdonshire, UK. The stipulations were simply that it should be a Christmas Carol, and that it should be in 7/8 – an asymmetrical time signature of seven quavers in the bar!
This gave me some cause for thought – but actually it forced me into writing a carol that was, I believe, more rhythmic and memorable than if I had set to work around a more conventional time signature: so the commissioner got the piece he wanted for his choir, and the challenge that he gave me spurred me on musically.
A little child there is yborn is then, mostly, in 7/8 – a lively and rhythmic setting of a fifteenth-century text, with a main theme that appears both in minor and major modes. For just one section – where the Three Kings appear – does the music move into a more regular, slightly pompous, metre, but it soon returns to the rhythmic character of the first section. Looking at it again now, I can see elements of similarity with ‘Glory to the Christ Child’, which I wrote about fifteen years later, though this carol lacks the reflective elements, isn’t so challenging in performance, and is really just one joyful romp. And I’ve used the 7/8 metre in a regular way (2+2+3) so it is quite easy for choir, and conductor, to get their head round it.
I’m rather fond of it (thank you, Peter!) and was very pleased when it was published by Oxford University Press just a couple of years ago. You can hear a clip from it here, and the whole piece on the OUP website, performed by The Oxford Choir directed by Bob Chilcott.