A rich boiled suet pudding with raisins, currants, spices, etc.' (OED).
You'll find no 'boiled suet' in our offering, but rich and well-spiced fare abounds - and unlike its namesake our pudding is bursting with plums! First, though, a warming drink as we Wassail with the merry folk of medieval Yorkshire: 'all over the town, in the wassail bowl we'll drink unto thee'. Vaughan Williams, renewing his quest for traditional airs after the horrors of war service, made his exultant arrangement in 1919. Almost a century earlier, in his beloved Northamptonshire village, John Clare was immortalising country life through the seasons; in December, when GladChristmas comes' he vividly evokes the simple pleasures of that day of happy sound and mirth'. Close contemporaries, Victoria (1548-1611) and Byrd (c. 1543-1623) both began their musical life as choristers, at Avila Cathedral in Spain and at London's Chapel Royal respectively. The former's magnificent motet O magnum mysterium, its arching phrases intertwining like a great cathedral's vaulting, was written in Rome in 1572. Byrd's equally intricate but more worldly This Day Christ Was Born subtitled 'A Carroll for Christmas Day' appeared in his last published songbook in 1611. Moving back to medieval times, to the Wakefield Mystery Plays, we hear God portrayed by a worthy merchant in his guild's 'pageant' reflecting on his treatment of Adam, and summoning Gabriel to tell Mary that she will bear his Son.
Only the Pageant of Shearmen and Tailors' survives from Coventry's contemporary play-cycle, and it is this which furnishes the text of the 'Coventry Carol', Lully, lullay - sung here in Kenneth Leighton's glorious 1956 setting for ethereally serene soprano and choir. By way of contrast Rhian Samuel (b. 1944 and, like Leighton, a distinguished teacher as well as composer) brings Jolly Wat the Shepherd to vivid life in her strikingly harmonised ballad.
After such exuberance, it is time for calmer contemplation. The 15th-century poem I sing of a Maiden, with its gentle portrayal of the sleeping Maid, and haunting refrain 'He cam also style - as dewe in Aprylle' is perfectly complemented by the lovely Mari Wiegenlied; in Peter Broadbent's arrangement of Reger's 1912 'slumber-song' a pair of sopranos duet ecstatically above a soft choral accompaniment. Felicity Lott returns to tell the story of The Three Kings from Persian Lands afar'; Elgar's organist friend Ivor Atkins (1869-1953) wrote the familiar arrangement of this Weihnachtslied (Christmas song) originally written in 1856 by Liszt's pupil Peter Cornelius. A darker view of The Journey of the Magi informs T.S. Elliot's 1927 poem, in which one of those kings, years afterwards, recalls the bitter cold and hardship of their journey and, for all its 'satisfactory' end, reflects equivocally on the changes wrought by that Birth.
There is bleakness, too, rather than the rustic revelry which Laurie 'Cider with Rosie' Lee's name might lead one to expect, in his 1954 poem Twelfth Night, adroitly set to music by the American composer Samuel Barber in 1968. This austere meditation on the earth's 'utter death', more animated at 'his birth our Saviour', returns at the close to a restatement � albeit more hushed of its opening line: 'No night could be darker than this night'. Lee's memories of Christmas in Seville, on the other hand he had a lifelong love affair with Spain bring welcome respite. The children who sang him carols, 'their faces set in a kind of soft unconscious rapture', moved him deeply understandably so, if they even approached the purity of tone and radiant sense of innocence which the Joyful Company of Singers conjure up in Guerrero's heart-easing Virgen Sancta, written in 1589. How those same children might have revelled in Andrew Carter's arrangement of the Spanish Esta Noche ('This Night'), with its guitar effects and infectious high spirits.
How many poets have made such music from words alone as Dylan Thomas? He wrote (and read) his original Memories of Christmas for BBC Radio in 1945. Two years later, for the magazine Picture Post, he added a postscript to it, the Conversation About Christmas; Gabriel Woolf's reading captures all the sly wit embodied in its dazzling wordplay. One of the best-loved English carols, The Holly and the Ivy, introduces the topic of traditional Christmas Decorations, a theme taken up by the journalist, novelist and Punch contributor E.V. Lucas (1868-1938). A sequence of letters between a rector and his parishioners aptly interspersed between lines from the rousing old Welsh song Deck the Hall reveals how the best-laid plans can go increasingly awry. No festive celebration of this kind would be complete without The Twelve Days of Christmas and we are treated to two variations on the theme: John Julius Norwich's hilarious warning against taking the old song's message too literally is aptly counterpointed by Andrew Carter's roistering choral arrangement. Another swift change of mood ensues. In Christmas Truce Captain R.J. Armes, writing home from the muddy hell of the First World War's trenches, touchingly describes an utterly unexpected experience. Then, across the desolate no man's land, steal the strains of the Stille Nacht. On Christmas Eve in 1818, in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, disaster struck when the church organ broke down. The organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, gratefully accepted some verses written two years earlier by the parish priest, Josef Mohr, and hastily set them to music; the choir sang the piece that night, to the accompaniment of a guitar and the rest, as they say, is history. In another remembrance of Christmases past, Leonard Clark tells how he had almost forgotten the Singing in the Streets, before Gruber's immortal melody returns, this time in English. Joyful indeed are Felicity Lott and the Company of Singers as Silent Night, in Peter Broadbent's richly-harmonised arrangement, brings our festive feast to a contented close.