An experiment

Can you do me a favour? It’s for a thing. Below are two clips of middle-aged men dancing. One is less than two minutes long, the other is less than three minutes long, so in total I promise I don’t need more than six minutes of your time, unless you feel compelled to write a comment, in which case I will read it carefully and almost certainly reply. In the meantime, could you vote for whichever clip you like better? There is also a “neither” option in case you have an objection to middle-aged men dancing, for which I couldn’t blame you at all.

Option one:

Option two:

Now vote!

Carol for Christmas Day: O Come All Ye Faithful

Yes I know you can’t have an advent song on Christmas Day, but you can have a Christmas Day song, which is what this is, and you didn’t really think we were going to have a month of carols from King’s and not include O Come All Ye Faithful, did you?

What’s interesting about O Come All Ye Faithful is that nobody really knows who wrote it, or when. It’s just merged into the general consciousness over the years, which is what all the best carols do. And like all the best carols, this has an indeterminate number of verses depending on who is singing it and when, and very probably the best descant line of all (starting in this video at 02:20 and reaching its giddying climax at just after three minutes).

In Cambridge they all like to go home to their loved ones for Christmas so they have to sing this on Christmas Eve, but the internet has given us the luxury of listening to it whenever we like, and when we like to listen to it is today, because the last verse begins Yea Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning.

So have a happy morning, and see you back here in the new year.

Advent Carol for December 24: Hark The Herald Angels Sing

Well, they always finish with Hark The Herald, so we will too. I mean, you can’t not really, can you? It’s just clearly the biggest and best carol of all. No nuances or subtlety in this one; it starts big and stays big, and then gets bigger, and each time you think the descant has reached the dizziest height it can, it hits a higher one. Are you at work? Wherever you are, turn up the volume and sing along (but don’t break your voice on the descant).

Happy Christmas!

Advent Carol for December 23: O Little Town Of Bethlehem

This has always been my favourite, partly because it’s pretty, partly because it’s sweet and partly because it’s the first carol I learned to sing the alto part for, which means it is the reason I started to enjoy singing carols rather than simply listening to them. The alto part isn’t at all complicated, which is probably why it’s the first one I learned, but it is pretty.

And the words are pretty too, which I always forget because like the Lord’s Prayer or All You Need Is Love I’ve known it for so long that I never think about what I’m singing. But you can’t beat a line like Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by, can you?

Also, you get to sing the “How Silently” verse quietly, and then get louder, and that’s never not fun, and it has another perfect third-verse descant. Sing along with this one, why don’t you?


Advent Carol for December 22: Torches

Another twentieth-century classic today, written in 1951 by John Joubert, who is still with us at the age of eighty-eight and has an eclectic collection of music to his name. I sang this with a choir in about 2006 and what I remember most is the feeling that you don’t really get to breathe – you just launch into it and keep singing right through until the end. The arrangement is striking but it’s the rollicking rhythmical headlong style of it that I really like. There is also a story, told by my parents, of me as a small child, old enough to read the title “Torches” but certainly not old enough to read the music (I would struggle now, if I didn’t already know it), singing this carol with the music propped up in front of me, upside-down. I’m afraid I failed to fulfil the prodigal promise of my early life, but I still like the song a lot.

Advent Carol for December 21: A Spotless Rose

I have mixed feelings about this one, actually, because while I think it is heart-stoppingly beautiful, for most of us it’s one to admire, rather than to join in with. We had our usual family carols yesterday and attempted several numbers that I’d never heard before, or at least never paid attention to, and I realised anew that it is not possible to read music and words at the same time and get both right. So listening to this now is making me feel a bit anxious.

This is, of course, because it’s a twentieth-century carol – dating from around 1919 – and they’re often a little tricksier than their older relatives. Stick with it, though, for a cameo from a baritone whom you’ll recognise as our solo Balthazar back on December 12th. I wonder what he’s doing now?


Advent Carol for December 20: In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter is maybe the prettiest tune of all, as long as you make sure to listen to the Gustav Holst setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem rather than the less lovely tune by Harold Darke, which dates from 1911 rather than Holst’s 1906 and therefore is definitely a pale imitation of the original. Sorry, Harold Darke, but there it is.

Actually tomorrow’s carol might be the prettiest of all. I’ll let you make your own mind up.

Advent Carol for December 19: The First Nowell

The thing about The First Nowell is that is essentially the same musical phrase sung over and over for four and a half minutes, which is why it’s impressive that this arrangement by David Willcocks (who, incidentally, arranged about half of the carols we’ve heard so far, and who died in September this year aged 95 after a quite extraordinary life) manages to dart around, giving the tune to different sections at different times, introducing a descant line early on and then reverting to the main tune and generally showing off what a few dozen voices and an organ are capable of.

Whereas many of our favourite carols date from the nineteenth or early twentieth century, there is a core of traditional carols that are much earlier and this is one, dating certainly from the sixteenth century but quite possibly as early as thirteenth century in its original form. So join in and enjoy the fact that you’re carrying on a Christmas tradition that’s at least as old as Elizabeth I.

Advent Carol for December 18: Once In Royal David’s City

My favourite anecdote about Christmas carols is one I heard on Radio Four one Christmas and I can’t remember whether I’ve told it here before, but in case I haven’t, and even if I have, here it is.

As you may know, the first verse is usually sung unaccompanied by a soloist, as it is here. At our family carols we used to rotate this role, with varyingly amusing results, until my cousin married a professional mezzo soprano, at which point it became clear nobody else was in the running any more (she usually tries to get out of it, but we never let her).

Anyway, the story told by a man on the radio who was probably, but not definitely, a choirmaster, was of a female soprano who was tasked with the solo, and who made the unfortunate mistake of starting off to the tune of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, which is similar enough to the tune of Once In Royal David’s City that she was able to stick with it, all unknowing, until she got to the line

Mary was that mother mild
Jesus Christ her little child

which she sang to the tune of

With th’angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

With the result that the only way out was to get to the end of the verse by singing

La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la

To the tune of

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”

(It’s funnier if you sing it, which he did.)

Apparently the choir had spotted the error and gamely jumped in and sang the second verse to the correct tune, and all was well.

So I will always be fond of Once In Royal David’s City for that reason, and because it’s always been (at least, since 1919) the song that starts the Christmas Eve service from King’s, so it’s special, and because it was originally written for children to sing, so it’s also sweet and comprehensible. It dates from the mid-19th century and is the work of Cecil Alexander (a woman, and I’ve always liked Cecil as a woman’s name too, if I had a baby girl she might be a Cecil) who is also known for All Things Bright And Beautiful, but you can’t have it all.

More and just as good to follow this evening.

Advent Carol for December 17: Gabriel’s Message

I said before I started this year’s advent calendar that I wasn’t going to do it this year because I was too busy, and I was right; which is why there hasn’t been a song since Wednesday. But fear not! Because today I will bring you three – one for breakfast, one for lunch, one for dinner – and bring us back up to date.

We’ve had December 17th’s song before in its original Basque form, but the much better-known version sung in English dates from the late nineteenth-century and is notable for having just about the prettiest tune ever. The words are lifted from the book of Luke and tell the story of the annunciation, so really we should have had it much sooner, but I was saving the best ones for last.