Piece of the week 46: Two Nativity Carols

Visual artists and composers have responded to the Nativity scene for many centuries, and in many ways – and that calming image of the stable communicates a sense of peace alongside a joyful promise for the future.

I’ve chosen two of my several carols to Nativity texts – one which I wrote some time ago, and the other one recently.

Scots Nativity is almost certainly my most popular carol – I’m not talking ‘blockbuster’ performances, but it appears very regularly in carol concerts and services. It’s difficult for me to assess why that is, but I suspect it’s due to its ‘folky’ character and modal aspects, its traditional Scottish words, and the characteristic reversed dotted rhythm sometimes known as the ‘scotch snap’. I wrote it over twenty years ago now, (on a hot summer’s day on the wall outside Ely Cathedral) as a duet for two voices, for my wife Jan (who was born in Scotland) and daughter Mary to sing. Later I added lower voices, and there are in fact now three versions, SA, SATB, and SAMen, all published by Oxford University Press, separately and in various collections. There’s also a version translated into Swedish!

The words of Scots Nativity date from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and I also used seventeenth-century words, probably by William Ballet, for my much more recent carol, Sweet Babe, sang she. Here I was aiming for the same mood (and as it happens, in the same key) but with an unaccompanied and more richly scored texture. The text here is from an early seventeenth century lute song, beginning
Sweet was the song the Virgin sung, when she to Bethlehem in Judah came,
and was delivered of a son, That blessed Jesus hath to name
Sweet babe, sang she….
In my setting I mainly give the chorus a background role, singing an undulating and slowly varying lullaby, while a solo soprano (or semichorus) sings the text reflectively in the foreground. Passages of gentle ‘alleluias’ make contrasting interludes for all voices together. In many ways it is different from Scots Nativity, but I think it paints a picture which complements it.

There are many recordings online of Scots Nativity: here’s one, by the Bearsden Choir, just north of Glasgow.

And here’s a lovely recording of Sweet Babe, sang she, by the Houston Chamber Choir, Texas.

Scots Nativity (upper voices) is available here, and the SATB version here. It is also in Carols for Choirs 5, and in several other OUP collections.

Sweet Babe, sang she is available here.

With my very best wishes for Christmas!