If Christmas and the New Year are times for celebrating the Old and the New, then A Song for Christmas warmly embraces both. Cantabile – The London Quartet return to disc on Champs Hill with a festive collection of almost entirely new arrangements and pieces, ranging from traditional choral favourites such as Warlock’s Bethlehem Down to American songbook hits like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and more in between.
The London Quartet is one of Britain’s longest-established vocal ensembles. Since they became widely known in the early 1980s they have mastered a wide array of musical styles which they have taken to a worldwide audience, always remaining true to their core vocal texture which is unmistakably rooted in the great English choral tradition.
Accompanied by pianist Chris Hatt, this is the ensemble’s first recording with their present line up; Sarah-Ann Cromwell (soprano), Christopher O’Gorman (tenor), Mark Fleming (tenor) and Michael Steffan (baritone).
If Christmas and the New Year are times for celebrating the Old and the New, then A Song for Christmas warmly embraces both. It is yet another fruit of our old friendship with David and Mary Bowerman at Champs Hill and at the same time the first album to feature the newest incarnation of The London Quartet. We first started discussing the idea of a Christmas disc over a seasonal meal after a Christmas concert in Champs Hill, and indeed one of the great joys of this project is that we have thus had ample time to plan and prepare before recording – a luxury one is not always afforded. We were also able to make sure that we would once again have Chris Hatt with us in amongst his packed schedule.
The result is a collection of almost entirely new arrangements and pieces new to our repertoire, including some fresh home-grown creations. We have, however, made sure to include some old friends in the shape of a few perennial classics which everyone expects to hear us sing every Christmas. We felt that to leave them out would be akin to decorating the tree without a couple of essential items which all the family love. And if Christmas is a time for friends, then to our delight we have found a number of dear old pals popping in; Ben Parry, with the wonderful Christmas Cards written with Garth Bardsley and which Ben kindly arranged for us, and Alexander L’Estrange, whose exquisite Epiphany Carol, with a stunning text from Alex’s wife, Joanna, we felt brought a special extra dimension to the programme. We had first met Carroll Coates, composer of the album’s title song, some years ago in Oregon, when he had handed us A Song for Christmas, which we always hoped one day to have the chance to record. Most fortuitous of all for us was that our timetable for the album coincided with Paul Plummer having some rare availability in London. Paul accompanied us on countless occasions, from Turkey to Berlin to Canada, until his own principal sphere of activities moved initially to Germany, then Austria and now Scotland. On this occasion he was not of course at the piano, but rather helped us both with our languages and with our vocal preparation. It was an added bonus to have him sit in for some of the sessions in Sussex, which were produced by Andrew Mellor, another old friend and veteran of our previous Champs Hill album. And to crown it all, a stunning cover image from one of our most supportive friends of all, Jonathan Knowles.
Thus surrounded by our extended family in the perfect working atmosphere of Champs Hill, we were in the most relaxed and festive of spirits to sing out A Song for Christmas.
1 A Song for Christmas
Carroll Coates (b. 1929) is an English composer and songwriter. He wrote the music and lyrics for dozens of songs, often for films, throughout the 1950s and into the 1990s. Coates’ songs have been recorded frequently by many artists including Frank Sinatra. In 2008 Coates contacted the London Quartet to arrange to meet them following their concert in Oregon. Knowing he was attending, the ensemble made sure to include their arrangement of his iconic standard London By Night. At their meeting the group were honoured when he handed them the score to A Song For Christmas, which Coates wrote both the music and lyrics for. Here the London Quartet presents a beautiful version of the song for just piano and voices, capturing Coates sumptuous jazz harmonies and later, swinging rhythms.
2 Bethlehem Down
A notorious and intriguing character in British musical History, Peter Warlock (1894–1930) was a pseudonym of Philip Arnold Heseltine, which he used to reflect his interest in the occult. He is best known as a composer of songs and other vocal music. Bethlehem Down – a setting of a poem by Warlock's friend Bruce Blunt – was the winning entry in the Daily Telegraph's annual Christmas carol competition, after the composer and lyricist submitted the piece in 1927. Reputedly Warlock and Blunt only entered the competition to fund a bout of heavy drinking; however, despite its origin, the result is a truly sublime work, surely amongst the most reflective and poignant in all Christmas music.
3-5 Our Joyful's Feast
Our Joyful’st Feast is in fact three short carols by the British composer Christopher Steel (1938–1991). Steel’s music has been compared to his contemporaries Walton and Britten and includes seven symphonies, choral works and music for the organ. These three carols are entitled: What Sweeter Music (Herrick’s Carol), There Was a Time for Shepherds and A Christmas Carol and demonstrate Steel’s warm, chromatic harmonic pallet.
6 The Twelve Days of Christmas
Traditionally Christmas Day is the first of twelve days of celebration and merrymaking. In the past there was particular celebration on the evening of the fifth of January, or Twelfth Night. The exact origins and meaning of the song are not clear but in 1780 a children’s book, Mirth without Mischief was published containing a Twelfth Night ‘memories-and-forfeits’ game, in which a leader recited a verse with gifts sent from their ‘true love’. Other players added verses until one of the players made a mistake and were obliged to give the other players a sweet or a kiss. Over the years there have been many versions, and in France and Scotland the melody and words are slightly different. The well-known melody now associated with it was derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings”.
7 I'll be Home for Christmas
Bing Crosby recorded I’ll be Home For Christmas in 1943 and since then hundreds of artists have recorded their own version of the song, including Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton. The song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during WWII, writing a letter to his family but ends with the melancholy line: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”.
8 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
In 1944, Judy Garland recorded Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song originally expressed the sadness of a family at the prospect of leaving their home in St. Louis, Missouri to move to New York. In order to include the song on his 1957 album ‘A Jolly Christmas’ Frank Sinatra requested some changes to the lyrics to make them more cheerful, and since then the song has been recorded many times by artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Luther Vandross and more recently, Sam Smith.
9 Good King Wenceslas Had a Farm
This is an original take on the well-known carol Good King Wenceslas, which is itself based on the legend of a Czech king who helps a peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26th). In 1853, John Neale and Thomas Helmore wrote the ‘Wenceslas’ lyrics to the tune of a traditional Finnish melody. Thanks to a remark by the composer Tanera Dawkins (who is married to Mark Fleming, the London Quartet’s second tenor) that the well-known Christmas Carol fits with other well known nursery rhymes, Mark has created this entertaining new version.
10 Introit Carol
This Introit Carol is another piece inspired by Mark’s wife Tanera Dawkins, who often plays Grieg’s Peasant Song from his Lyric Pieces, book VIII, Op.65. Mark realised that this would be a great melody to which he could add Christmas words.
11 The Christmas Waltz
Along with the new, jolly version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, The Christmas Waltz also featured on Frank Sinatra’s ‘A Jolly Christmas’ album. Sinatra specifically requested that Styne and Cahn write him a Christmas song during a particularly hot summer in Los Angeles as a B-Side for a new recording of White Christmas. In this new version, various Chopin waltzes make brief appearances, including Chopin’s Minute Waltz Op.64 No.1 in the introduction, and later his Grande Valse Brillante Op.18.
12 Epiphany Carol
Alexander L’Estrange (b. 1974) set his wife Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s beautiful poem to create this wonderful Epiphany Carol. The piece demonstrates L’Estrange’s style which is rooted in the English choral tradition, but draws freely on the composer’s passion for jazz. The ensemble enjoyed working on this piece with the composer who was also the bassist and arranger for some of the London Quartet’s ‘Songs of Cricket’ album.
13 Susa Nina – Stille Nacht
Franz Gruber (1781–1863) famously set the young priest Joseph Mohr’s lyrics to Stille Nacht in 1818, before the two of them performed the work together at a Christmas Eve service that year at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Austria. Susa Nina is by Flemish composer, Armand Preud’homme (1904-1986). This haunting melody was conceived to fit with the well-known carol and the London Quartet has created a new arrangement exploring the combination.
14 A Festival of Carols in Two Minutes
This fantastic piece A Festival of Carols in Two Minutes is the ensemble’s own arrangement and challenges the listener to see how many carols and Christmas songs they can identify.
15 Christmas in my Heart
Christmas in my Heart was recorded in 2005 by German singer-songwriter Sarah Connor, and was the lead single of her album of the same name. In this version the London Quartet have added their trademark close-harmony sound.
16 Süßer die Glocken nie klingen
This is a new arrangement by Cantabile – The London Quartet of the traditional German carol Süßer die Glocken nie klingen. The carol’s words describe how sweet the bells of Christmas sound and that their ringing spreads the message of peace, love and Christmas joy.
17 Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
David Willcocks (1919–2015) was a British choral conductor, organist and composer. He is particularly known for his widely used choral arrangements of Christmas carols, many of which were originally written or arranged for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge where he directed the choir from 1957 to 1974. Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, which is a traditional Polish carol, is one of many such arrangements published in Carols for Choirs, and this is the ensemble’s tribute to the father of the English carol service.
18 Quelle est cette odeur agréable?
Quelle est cette odeur agréable ? is a well-known French nativity carol that has the rather unusual theme of a beautiful smell. A translation of the title might be “Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing?”, and the words explain that there is a fragrance unlike any encountered before even among spring flowers, arising from the stable.
19 The Wexford Carol
One of the oldest Christmas carols in the European tradition, The Wexford Carol is named after County Wexford in Ireland. It was championed by William Flood (1859–1928) who was organist and musical director at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy. He transcribed the carol from a local singer, and had it published in the Oxford Book of Carols. Cantabile – The London Quartet has previously recorded an a cappella version, but this is a new arrangement by the ensemble with piano accompaniment.
20 Christmas Cards
Ben Parry (b. 1965) is a British composer, conductor, singer and arranger. A collaboration with Garth Bardsley, an actor, singer, writer and director, Christmas Cards is an amusing piece about sending and receiving cards. This was originally a solo song but Ben Parry, a great friend of Cantabile, arranged the piece specially for them.
21 Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
Another song by the writing partnership of Cahn and Styne, Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! was written during a heatwave in 1945. There have been many notable recordings by artists including Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and more recently, Kylie Minogue and Rod Stewart. In 1950 Frank Sinatra recorded a version with The Swanson Quartet, providing the initial inspiration for this new arrangement by Cantabile – The London Quartet.
22 The Birds
Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) was an Anglo-French writer, best known for his cautionary tales and religious poetry. This is another piece by Peter Warlock, who set several of Belloc’s poems to music. He composed The Birds in 1926.
This is a new piece written by Mark Fleming for his London Quartet colleagues. John Donne (1572–1631) was the most outstanding of the English metaphysical poets and Mark has long admired his extraordinary and moving poems. In this the author reflects on the incarnation, in which the infinite becomes small enough to be contained within his mother’s womb. Fleming’s a cappella setting provokes the listener to ponder the profound mystery in these words.
24 Twelve Days to Christmas
Twelve Days to Christmas was written for the musical She Loves Me, which was produced on Broadway and in the West End in the 1960s. With lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, the song appears towards the end of the show. The musical is set in a perfume shop and features carollers, shop assistants and shoppers making last-minute preparations for Christmas.
25 What are you doing New Year's Eve?
Unusually for the composer of such classics as Baby it’s Cold Outside and the musical Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser (1910–1969) didn’t write What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? for a show, movie or even a specific singer. Since he composed it in 1947 it has been used in dozens of films and has been recorded by a huge number or artists.
26 Wonderful Christmastime
Paul McCartney (b. 1942) wrote and recorded Wonderful Christmastime entirely on his own during sessions for his solo album ‘McCartney II’ in 1979. In this arrangement Cantabile recreates the iconic synthesizers of the introduction with their voices.