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.