Favourite Christmas music

Bob Chilcott singing with the Shipton Choir

Ascott’s Bob Chilcott, a vastly experienced musician and internationally renowned composer, tells The Wychwood some of his musical memories. He is pictured back right in the Shipton choir.

I was very lucky when I was young to be in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge – for five years as a young boy and for three years as a student. I was exposed to a wealth of music during this time, but one of the big focuses of every year for the choir was the music we would be singing at Christmas. Not only did we sing the live radio broadcast on Radio 4, but also, we would record a BBC TV broadcast carol service and for these services; every year, we would await to see what different music would be chosen. There was often new music written and of course there were always a few carols that appeared every year, such as ‘Adam lay ybounden’ or ‘In dulci Jubilo,’ but the one thing that we could always be sure of was that we would sing ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’ ‘O come all ye faithful’ and ‘Hark! The herald angels sing.’ I’ve never forgotten singing particularly the last verses of these hymns in a full King’s College Chapel, with everyone singing their hearts out along with soprano descants and the sound of the full organ. It was an overwhelming sound, a deep expression of what seemed to be a common purpose and sense of community. This experience is something that has helped to articulate for me why I became a working musician. It speaks of communality, unity, shared purpose and as the cliché says, ‘singing from the same song sheet.’ Christmas hymns remain for me at the top of the list for music at this time of year.

In our house we love Christmas and generally we start listening to Christmas music soon after Guy Fawkes Night, which for some might seem quite early but not, I have to say, for us. Each year, I always look for the new Christmas releases on disc, but to be honest we generally end up listening to the same Christmas music. For the last few years, we have enjoyed listening to an outrageously opulent Christmas CD called ‘Noel’ sung by Josh Groban, a fabulous album by Michael Bublé called, surprisingly, ‘Christmas’ and a perennial favourite of ours, ‘James Taylor at Christmas.’

Nothing, however, beats a little album that I was given a few years ago, a recording of traditional Christmas songs, sung in Czech, by a children’s choir accompanied by the organ; since 1999, with a couple of exceptions, I have been going to conduct a concert with a choir made up of children from a school in the town of Opava, a beautiful Czech town in Silesia, not far from the Polish border. This album was sung by those young voices from that school. The melodies of the songs are beautiful and reflect a rich melodic tradition that is very widespread across Central Europe. Now the members of that choir from the time of that recording have grown up and they have gone on to pursue a variety of careers and lifestyles. One is a television presenter, one a famous model, several are lawyers and a few are music teachers, but all of them, needless to say, are immensely proud to have been a part of that recording and of that choir.

For twelve years I sang with the vocal group The King’s Singers, and Christmas was always a great focus of the musical year for us. For a number of years, we gave a series of Christmas concerts in Washington DC with the National Symphony Orchestra and then we used to come home and give a couple of concerts, just before Christmas, in the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. We loved doing these concerts and for me there were always a few songs that I would wait for that really affected me when I sang them – the American folk tune ‘I wonder as I wander,’ the traditional Irish song ‘The Wexford Carol,’ the popular Christmas song written at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘Do you hear what I hear?’ and also the beautiful old German melody, harmonised in the 16th century by the composer Michael Praetorius, ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.’ These melodies have stayed with me ever since and when I hear them, they evoke great memories along with a strong feeling of warmth and gratitude.

For many people who love to sing, Christmas is a time when singing together, in church or school, in the concert hall, village hall or pub gives us a sense of communality and of our shared humanity This year it will be challenging, but for many of us music will continue to help to define a time when we look forward to the year ahead. Music does so much, often unconsciously, to comfort and to inspire. And as we hope for a good future, I know that in our house we will be thinking of those emotive words in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ that that are sung so often at Christmas – ‘Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.’ And so, I hear you say, say all of us.

April-May 2021