Like a lot of Christmas carols, this is a folksong requisitioned for Christmas. Since we still put trees in our houses for a month of every year, despite the cost and the mess, I guess that makes us by default more on the pagan side than the godly, which is a nice thought.
It was only last week that the teacher I was playing for drew my attention to the fact that this is a little mazurka (by mazurka-ing around the studio gamely while I was playing it). I was going to make this into a huge, comedy mazurka like the one from Jerome Robbins The Concert, but then after hearing an advert on TV with every musical christmas decoration going (harps, celestas, glockenspiels) I thought maybe this tune needed the mazurka taken out of it a bit, rathen injected into it like one of those water-injected Christmas turkeys, so here it is, a Tannenbaum decorated as tastelessly as the tree in your local pub.
OK, I confess – I made such a different arrangement of this song that I convinced myself I was playing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, so I mean it, this really is once again in Royal David’s City. But let’s pretend it’s one of those classes where you do one exercise in the centre, and then you say ‘Now let’s do it again with….’ Go on, please pretend that, so I don’t have to start all over again.
What I was going to say about Hark the Herald Angels Sing (which I haven’t recorded yet, but you can get the blurb anyway) is this:
Considering that both Movable Type (the first blogging platform I ever used, back in 2003) and Gutenberg are such key names of the internet age, perhaps we should do a new version of the words to celebrate the Internet.
It’s taken me this long to realise that this carol, and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ both begin with an anacrusis in the notation. The reason must be a dancey one, I think, because it doesn’t do the words any favours in either case. The original German of Mendelssohn’s chorus that gave us the tune for Hark the Herald Angels Sing begins ‘Vaterland in deinen Gauen’, and if you’re going to sing Vaterland, surely you want a big Vat- on 1, you don’t want to dissipate it in some dainty gavotte-like anacrusis. But respecting the anacrusis rather than trying to force it back on to ‘one’ gives the music rather a nice lilt, I think, and suggests a different kind of movement.
Update, Nov. 2018: In the years since writing this post, I’ve understood that this probably has everything to do with what William Nathan Rothstein refers to as “national metrical types” and I’m wrong to talk about ‘Gavotte type anacruses.” It’s a long story. 7,500 words long, as it happens, which is the length of the article I’m preparing on this for an Oxford Handbook.
Henry Gauntlett, who wrote the tune, is a much bigger name in the history of organs and hymns than you might suppose from this example. He apparently had a Lambeth Doctorate, a phrase I hadn’t heard before. It sounds like a euphemism for something involving drugs and violence, but it isn’t. Read more here.
This is scraping the bottom of the carol barrell a bit, because there’s nothing more unlike a Christmas carol, it seems to me, than a tendu and pirouette in the centre. One very well-spoken, lady-like ballet teacher once told me, referring to a class she’d taken of young boys at a famous elite ballet school “They all want to show me their pirouettes. I don’t WANT to see their f***ing pirouettes!”. That’s christmas all over. You think it’s all tidings of joy and sparkly stuff, but carols are still quite sedate, and no place for f•••ing pirouettes.
Sorry about the wonky order of ports de bras after adage, but the version I wanted to do of Santa Lucia yesterday was too slow for port de bras, and I’m still racking my brains for any, ANY christmas carol that is suitable for tendus and pirouettes without calling the taste police. I may just commit the crime anyway, but I’m giving it another day in case I can think of something I can live with.
Coventry carol has been a favourite of mine since I was at school – probably because its modal strangeness is a relief from all the usual christmassy Victoriana of other carols. I’ve played it so many times in a ballet-version that I’d forgotten how it actually went. I’ve kept it square for this exercise, even though the more irregular-shaped original is much nicer. This is yet another song that shows how very particular ballet class music is – people talk about ‘regular eight bar phrases’ as if that’s a common thing in music, but it’s actually pretty rare, except in a very small bandwidth of social dances.
To most English people, Santa Lucia isn’t a carol. But if you live in Sweden (and some other places, I think) you’ll be singing this today, as it’s St Lucy’s day, and that’s what you sing. After you’ve put a crown of candles on your head and marched through the town. Read more on St Lucy’s day celebrations in Sweden.
And as it’s St Lucy’s day, and this is a ballet blog, let me introduce you to a very special Lucy from the ballet world, Daria Klimentová’s cat. Lucy’s not only very pretty, but she also eats her food by picking it up with her paw, and then putting it in her mouth, which is something I’ve never ever seen a cat do before. A huge thank you to Daria for sending me the pictures so obligingly.
Now I have to own up – I can’t stand this carol. The rot really set in when it was used, repeatedly, on a London radio station advert in the run-up to Christmas in recent years. I can’t remember the product, but if you want an idea of what was driving me mad, try this old Garmin advert for size. Apart from anything else, it annoyed me because it was such a bad choice of music – you couldn’t hear or make sense of the words, so you were hearing the concept, rather than its successful execution.
But it goes further than that. Everything that annoys me about choirs and choirmasters is rolled into this one piece – you can just imagine them all making special faces as they do the hemiola. And then, because they sang a hemiola in choir, they’ll get a special thrill every time they hear a hemiola, and an even more special thrill when they tell you it’s a hemiola. I hope I grow to like it again one day, but until then, I can just about take it with a few additions, as in today’s offering. And for the hemiophiles out there, my version has a double hemiola (i.e. on two metric levels) in the first part, so there.
I suppose for the avoidance of any copyright-related doubt, I should point out that although I’m using the title ‘Carol of the Bells’ for this post, what I’m using is the music to this carol, not the lyrics – but if I’d called it by the original title, few people would have known what I was referring to. The music is out of copyright, as it was written by Mykola Leontovych who died in 1921. Leontovych’s music was based on a Ukrainian New Year’s carol or ‘shchedrivka‘ that’s about swallows, not bells. The bells stuff came later, and those words are still in copyright. The score of Leontovych’s original, with the Ukrainian words, is available from the IMSLP.
I constantly mix this one up with ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, probably because there’s a ‘mid’ in the first line, and because there’s a wintry, English poignancy about both of them that I love.
About “See amid the winter’s snow”
For melody-writing genius, See amid the winter’s snow should win a prize. It’s like one of those short weekends away where you only have two nights, only one full day, and a journey either end, but you remember and savour everything about it because everything is just right. Klein aber fein, as the Germans say, which as phrases go is itself is a model of what it stands for – ‘small but perfectly formed’.
Reading up about John Goss, who wrote the tune (Christina Rosetti wrote the words), I think I rather like the sound of him, and sympathized with his departed soul when I read this on the wikipedia page about him: “His mildness was a disadvantage when attempting to deal with his recalcitrant singers. He was unable to do anything about the laziness of the tenors and basses, who had lifetime security of tenure and were uninterested in learning new music.
About the arrangement
I’ve done very little with this except play it more in the style of a slow pop ballad near the beginning, and slightly reharmonize it. In the second half, just for fun, I’ve put some “musical snow” — a quotation from Debussy’s “The Snow is Dancing” from Children’s Corner. What could be more appropriate? By coincidence, it works rather well.
Someone posted a comment on an previous post saying that they couldn’t download the file. Yes, it seems that if you have an Apple device like an iPod or iPhone, this is the point at which you’ll realise how much those things are designed to create an impenetrable, exclusive syphon between you and the iTunes store. If there is anything available out there in the world for you to download without paying for it (like my christmas carols), Apple won’t help you take advantage of it.
There is a workaround, however. MyMedia download manager enables you to do the thing that I’ve just said Apple won’t let you do. You have to adjust your methods a bit, but once you have, it does work. Once you’ve downloaded the MyMedia app, you use the in-built browser in the app to browse the web. When you come across a site that has audio files on it (like mine), long-clicking on the audio file or media player will bring up a ‘download file’ dialog. You’ll be prompted to name the file.
The files are stored in MyMedia’s own media player, accessible by clicking one of the icons on the bottom of the app. Your downloaded file(s) will appear in a list, rather like iTunes, and you can play them from there.
MyMedia isn’t the most graceful or intuitive of programs, but that’s not the developer’s fault – it seems to me that it’s the walled-garden approach of Apple to you, music and iTunes that prevents it from integrating with your phone and your life any more seamlessly.
I would much rather have a Mac any day than a PC, and I like my iPhone. However, it’s things like this that demonstrate that there is nothing very portable about iPhones and iPads, when it comes to music. Unless you have a computer, and are prepared to spend a lot of time and work syncing and organizing your media files between the mobile device and iTunes on the computer, what you have in your hand in musical terms is little more than a hotline for your cash to go to Apple, not much of a useful, agile tool for independent music use.
I’d be delighted if someone said ‘You idiot Jonathan, there’s no need to go to these lengths, all you have to do is…’. If you know a better way than what I’ve just described, let me know.