On Bob Chilcott’s ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’…

January 2nd, 2019

As always, I try to write a festive blog entry every year in the vain hope that it might be the apex of someone’s holiday season; the signal that Christmas has really started, and the festivities can begin. I’m joking. I do it because I love Christmas music and I’m stuck into a pattern of doing this every year. But it gets harder and harder each time to find interesting music to write about, particularly because as time passes I know more and more of the composers who’s pieces I might consider – it becomes harder to be objective. But then I don’t know Bob Chilcott, so I thought I’d write about his lovely The Shepherd’s Carol, one the most beautiful recent carols written for King’s College, Cambridge.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Bob Chilcott or his work, he is one of the High Priests of British choral music (I made the title up…) along with his older compatriot John Rutter: an instantly recognisable compositional voice, performed across the country (and further afield) with increasing regularity by choirs of all shapes and sizes. Now in his mid-60s, Chilcott initially found recognition as a singer, firstly as a chorister at King’s, before being a tenor in the celebrated vocal ensemble The King’s Singers from 1985-1997. With a niche as a choral composer and conductor already established, he left full-time singing in the late 1990s to concentrate on this new direction and hasn’t looked back since. His work crosses the whole range of choral music-making from amateur choirs and children’s groups right through to the BBC Singers (of whom he is the Principal Guest Conductor) and it is this breadth of scope that has led to Chilcott’s success and popularity. His most well-known works are towards the lighter end of the spectrum, including A Little Jazz Mass (2004) and The Making of the Drum (1999), but many of his pieces have found a permanent place in the repertoire of many choirs.

That leads me to The Shepherd’s Carol, which I assumed was written for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, but I was wrong! It was commissioned for the televised ‘Carols from King’s’ an accompanying, and slightly lighter version of the august annual service (no television here, thank you!) that is broadcast on the BBC on Christmas Day each year. It has since been performed in the Nine Lessons and Carols, but it’s first outing was on TV for Christmas 2000. It is a simple, but poignant setting of an anonymous poem (though one maybe written by Charles Causley, a Cornish poet who died in 2003) that softly describes the nativity from the shepherd’s perspective, full of content weariness and peaceful calmness. Chilcott responds to this serenity with a largely quiet and tender setting, full of pastoral strains and the stillness of evening. Despite it’s simple, memorable melodic lines, there is a nod to the medieval English carol tradition, with subtle metric changes and soft dissonances. Alongside the touching words of the shepherds, Chilcott makes full use of the choir humming, a gentle backdrop to the narrative, or perhaps a representation of the shepherd’s joyful weariness at the profound events taking place. Despite its subdued hues, the work does manage to swell to an ecstatic crescendo on the words ‘Oh, a voice from the sky’ where the celestial brightness of the Christmas star is represented by characteristic added chords, full of diatonic dissonances and expressive colour. The piece gradually slows and recedes to leave more humming and a softly intoned D major chord, somehow managing to be both melancholy and fulfilled in equal measure – like most of the musical decisions Chilcott makes in this work, it is incredibly well-judged and leaves an indelible mark on the listener.

Perhaps there is no higher praise for The Shepherd’s Carol, then the words of John Rutter (who knows how to write a good Christmas carol…) who wrote in 2012: ‘For my money, this is the most beautiful modern carol there is. It brings on cascades of tears every time.’ High praise indeed! Have a listen to the piece, and of course, a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year.


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