Hello. I’m off to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College this afternoon, which is always a joyous experience, and then I will be busy doing various Christmassy things, so I will take this opportunity to wish all readers of this blog a Merry Christmas. If you want to listen to the carol service, it’s live on Radio 4 at 3pm, and you can play Spot the Gareth in the televised service on BBC2 later in the afternoon. It was recorded a couple of weeks ago, but if there was ever a facade that it was live then even Stephen Cleobury has given up pretending.
This is a Brahms chorale prelude on ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ that will be played before the service today. It’s one of my favourite pieces of Christmas music. I remember when I first heard it – it was on some enchanted evening, possibly across a crowded room. It’s meant for the organ, but you can play it on the piano, though you generally don’t, but in fact I generally do, not being an organist. Anyway, have a good one.
A well-wisher at work presented us with a box of chocolates just before Christmas – to wit, the Mint Connoisseur Collection from House of Dorchester. These are pretty high-end chocs. And yet I feel repelled by the language used to describe them.
One mint is ‘finished with a strickle of white chocolate’; another is ‘finished with a natural green coloured chocolate strickle’. I’d argue for the hyphenation of ‘green coloured’ or even the omission of ‘coloured’ altogether (Alan Hansen, take note), but my real beef is with ‘strickle’. I can see what’s happened. Some chocolate marketing bod has decided, quite wrongly, that the words already provided by the English language will simply not suffice. What the squiggly bit on top of the chocolate is, he reasons, is a sort of cross between a trickle and a stripe. A portmanteau word is clearly called for. Having vetoed ‘tripe’, he settles on ‘strickle’. And there the word now sits, adorning many thousands of boxes of chocolates.
I’m not against the evolution of language. Those French tosseurs who try and invoke the law to stop their mother tongue from being besmirched, I think they’re boum out of order. I like new words. Tweeple, webinar, laters, cromulent, paedogeddon. Every word has to be invented at some point. Dickens himself came up with ‘boredom’ and ‘dustbin’. The problem is, strickle already is a word — a word that, unless I’m very much mistaken, most of us use every day. OED defines it as:
a. A straight piece of wood with which surplus grain is struck off level with the rim of the measure. Sometimes applied to the amount so measured.
b. Applied to various instruments used for similar purposes in casting or moulding
2. A tool with which a reaper whets or sharpens his scythe. Also a mechanical grinder
To strike off with a strickle (the superfluous sand) in moulding; to shape (a core) or form (a mould) by means of a strickle.
It’s certainly a word that must pop up regularly in societies where grain and casting/moulding still feature heavily. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee the problems the House of Dorchester’s mindbogglingly careless use of language must inevitably create. Yevgeny turns up at his farm or his iron foundry after Christmas, asks ‘Hyend me thyet strieckel,’ and receives a chocolate in return. He can’t fulfil the daily grain quota, his family can only afford one potato a day (plus the chocolate), the Russian economy collapses, and China takes over the world. Thanks a lot, Dorchester.
Trickle is a lovely word. It sounds like what it is, flowing water, a babbling brook. It needs no addendum. If a new word is really needed to describe a stripe atop a chocolate, I would suggest squizzle (squirt/drizzle).
But the chocolates were very nice. Merry Christmas.
I love Christmas. My very favourite time of year, especially musically speaking. I like to play Christmas carols and songs on the piano. In theory one could play ‘See amid the winter’s snow’ all year round, but it wouldn’t feel special without the eleven-month break.
Anyway, in the spirit of festivity, here are a few of my favourites.
I’m singing this Villette motet in a concert on Monday, for the first time in nearly ten years. What a fabulous piece. The final phrase should sound ecstatic, and will send shivers down the spine of choir and audience, if sung well (and in a good acoustic). We aspire to be as good as these young singers (age 13-18).
A touching song of a selfless act of charity.
A curiosity. The Wiener Sängerknaben from 1964, and quite an unprepossessing bunch they are, but their performance has charm and evokes something that is missing from Christmas today. Perhaps I have conceived some kind of false nostalgia for a German Christmas I never had. Gemütlichkeit and so on. The carol is originally Sicilian, I believe, and is also the basis of the Eels song ‘Baby Genius’.
A beautiful setting by Michael Praetorius of ‘Quem pastores laudavere’, not quite the same as the tune one usually hears. From one of the best Christmas CDs around, just rereleased at budget price.
Probably the definitive version of this classic.
And something from King’s, of course, featuring the choir of a few years ago. I have fond memories of singing John Joubert’s ‘Torches’ as a teenager when I first started singing in choirs. I hadn’t realised singing could be so exciting, though I don’t think I was ever quite as mad-eyed as the boy in the middle at the climax of this performance.
I’ll be around again before the month is out, I’m sure, but in any case let me take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
When you see the phrase ‘Christmas music’ you probably automatically think of a lone boy chorister intoning the first plaintive bars of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, or the song from the Coca-Cola advert that goes ‘Holidays are coming, holidays are coming’ and makes you want to run into the street and kick someone to death.
The piano probably doesn’t get a look in. Why would it? Christmas is about choirs and bells and Noddy Holder shouting at you. But if you look hard enough, the music exists. What is there? Well, a couple of lovely wintry pieces by Debussy – ‘Des pas sur la neige’ from the first book of preludes, and ‘The snow is dancing’ from Children’s Corner. Messiaen’s monumental Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, of course. These Frenchies knew what they were doing. Mendelssohn wrote something or other. I’m almost certain he must have done. And that’s about it.
But here’s a thing: Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partridge Pie, a recent discovery of mine. A set, as you might expect, of twelve pieces, each based on one of the gifts from the song (though not the music of the song itself), all written in RRB’s idiomatically pithy harmonic language. It’s a delight from start to finish. This is one of the more serene movements, which I would like to offer in memory of Brian Jordan, the legendary Cambridge music seller, who died on 1st December. It was the last music he sold me personally.
Richard Rodney Bennett – Four calling birds
Then, of course, there exists a piano arrangement of ‘The Holy Boy’, the song Ireland adapted for every combination of musicians imaginable. It was originally a setting of words by one Herbert S. Brown:
Lowly, laid in a manger,
With oxen brooding nigh,
The Heav’nly Babe is lying
His Maiden Mother by.
Lo! The way-faring sages,
Who journey’d far through the wild,
Now worship, silent adoring,
The Boy, The Heav’nly Child -
The Heav’nly Child.
and so forth.
John Ireland – The Holy Boy
Last of all, here’s one I thought of late on, the last movement of Gabriel Grovlez’s beautiful suite L’Almanach aux Images, a set of eight pieces inspired by the poems of Tristan Klingsor, which are printed alongside the movements in the score. I reproduce the poignant poem in full here. The verse in square brackets is not printed in the score. Grovlez’s melody is not an exact metrical setting of the text, but you can sing along with it, at least for the first verse.
Ten years ago I had a practical exam for A-level Music which entailed my being given a piano piece and having 20 minutes to learn it before performing it for the visiting examiner. By sheer good fortune I was presented with the Grovlez, which I already knew, so all I had to do was fine-tune it. When the examiner asked me what I could tell him about the piece I did some creative lying so he wouldn’t know I was familiar with it already. ‘Well, it’s early twentieth century, and from the performance directions it’s clearly French, but I know Ravel and Debussy’s piano music well enough to rule them out. I’d say a minor composer of the time – Ibert, say, maybe even…Grovlez?’ I needn’t have bothered with the pretence, as he admitted afterwards he didn’t know what it was himself.
Jésus des anges et des Maries,
Petite image peinte de bois,
En robe d’étoiles fleurie,
Jésus, ma pauvre âme s’effraie
Comme un agneau divin qui broute au bois
Les épines des roseraies:
Jésus qui avez eu le doux malheur
De la couronne de ronces des bois
Après la couronne adorable de fleurs,
[Jésus, mon cœur est misérable
Comme un meurtrier qui rôde au bois
Avec le couteau ou le bâton d'érable:
Jésus des carrefours et des chemins,
Pendu comme un oiseau mort aux croix de bois,
Avec les roses des clous aux mains,
Jésus des gueux et des rois,
Gabriel Grovlez – Petites Litanies de Jésus
I’m probably going quiet now until the New Year, so excuse the radio silence and please have a lovely and restful Christmas if that’s the kind of thing you observe and a lovely end of December and beginning of January if it’s not.