Sunday, December 27, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Write a Set of Christmas Carols

I've been thinking quite a bit about this idea - the calendar says December 27 today - and I've heard a lot of Christmas carols in the past few weeks. I've even played a few on the piano, including a nice bluesy arrangement of "Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow" and a version of "Jingle Bells" in 5/4 time which is virtually impossible to sing but fun to play.

My most recent post on memorizing poetry also prompted me to think about writing Christmas carols, since one of the poems I learned was "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy which begins with the line "Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock." Having acquired an intimate familiarity with the poem, I had the thought it could be set to music. It has four stanzas, each with the same basic meter and rhyme scheme.

So I sat down at the piano and came up with a reasonable melody and set of harmonies that can certainly be improved upon, but at a minimum suggested that I am capable of setting a poem to music. I should probably mention that I'm not the first person to decide "The Oxen" would make a good song. It is a baritone solo in the Christmas cantata Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly has nothing to fear from my efforts, or would have nothing to fear if he were still alive.

Vaughan Williams' version is quite nice and just exudes atmosphere, but requires a well trained voice and an orchestra to get the full effect. That's not the type of Christmas carol I have in mind for this particular HarvilleQuarter.

If I have a model for this endeavor, it would be Alfred Burt, whose Episcopal priest father started a tradition of creating a Christmas carol each year as part of the Burt family's annual Christmas letter. One presumes their Christmas card list consisted solely of friends and family who could read music, sing in four-part harmony and play the piano. Alfred continued the tradition in his, unfortunately, very short life - he lived to be only 33. Alfred Burt's carols have been published and recorded by many singers and choirs. Some might even be considered staples of the holiday season.

I'm not suggesting any carols I might write will achieve that status - Alfred Burt did have the advantage of being a professional musician - but I do like the idea of creating a personal contribution to the holiday season, even if the audience is limited to a few friends and family.

The first question is whether you will write the words, the music or both. As my example shows, I am quite willing to take a shot at the music but writing the words scares me. (I suppose that indicates I should write the words because that would involve more risk, one of my seven HarvilleQuarters criteria. I'll give that some more thought.)

If, like me, you'd prefer to use someone else's poetry, there are many sources of Christmas poems available. Check your local library. It may have several books consisting only of Christmas poems. Look in the children's section, too. A Christmas poem directed toward children might be a great choice for your collection. There are also Christmas poems published online as well as in general poetry anthologies and December issues of magazines. One more option would be to take the text of an existing carol and create a new musical setting for it, especially if there's a carol where you find the words more appealing than the traditional music. I know of three different settings of "Away in the Manger" and all three are quite beautiful, but that would not preclude a fourth.

If you're more of a poet than a composer, consider taking music from another Christmas carol or some other source and creating a set of lyrics appropriate to the holiday season.

Once you get started, you may find this HarvilleQuarter easier than you expect. You can decide how widely you want to share your results, if at all. And if you really enjoy it, you can make it an annual holiday tradition just like Alfred Burt, after this particular HarvilleQuarter is completed.

In case you're not familiar with Hardy's "The Oxen," here it is in its entirety:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come, see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The Christmas carolers in the photograph are from the Festival Choir of Madison, Wisconsin, an organization of which I was a member for 12 years. I am not in this particular picture although I know everyone who is. It can be found at

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