With autumn already well underway, Christmas is just around the corner. Looking to spruce up your musical programming? Our choral contributor BP offers their top picks and thoughts on new choral arrangements for Christmas 2023, from re-editions of Christmas classics to new cantatas, medleys, pop and secular holiday pieces and budget-friendly concert pieces. A link is included for each piece mentioned.
New Editions of Classic Christmas
Arguably one of the biggest Christmas new releases of the season, Carols for Choirs 6 expands upon Oxford University Press (OUP) Music’s previous five volumes. With new names rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Rutter, David Hill, Cecilia McDowall and Errollyn Wallen, this new volume of carols will last you well into Epiphany. Listening to the professional recordings of the new carols uploaded on Spotify by OUP, my ears were piqued by Marques L.A. Garrett’s “The Saviour’s Birth”, Cecilia’s McDowall’s “In dulci jubilo”, B.E. Boykin’s “Coventry Carol”, and Reena Esmail’s “The Unexpected Early Hour”. An honourable mention for Ben Parry’s “Il est né le divin enfant” – a carol I usually find annoying to listen to, but not this time around.
Garrett’s joyful arrangement draws from gospel and African American choral tradition, with its powerful ending perfect for an end of service or concert. In equal jovial temperament, Esmail’s setting of Rebecca Gayle Howell’s words follows, according to her words, ‘the canonical hours of Evensong, Matins and Lauds, and the music maps onto Hindustani ragas for those same hours (Raag Hamsadhwani, Malkauns and Ahir Bhairav).’ I found Boykin’s setting of the “Coventry Carol” to be a masterclass in text painting, masterfully conveying the horror Herod’s slaughter of innocent children all while offering a soothing and comforting lullaby. It’s definitely up there with Kenneth Leighton’s setting of the carol.
Speaking of carols, I’d like to point out Stephen Dombek’s arrangement of the “Irish Wexford Carol” as an excellent intermediate piece for community choirs. Opening with a soprano solo, the piece evolves into a lush and closed texture with a comfortable vocal range for all voices. In terms of accessible Christmas works, Morten Schuldt-Jensen’s arrangements of English Christmas classics “Ding dong! merrily on high”, “I saw three ships”, “O come, all ye faithful”, “O little town of Bethlehem” and “Once in royal David’s city” for soprano, alto and low voices combined offers a budget and rehearsal-friendly alternative to the divisi arrangements available. Suitable for caroling singers and concert settings, SAM-Klang arrangements do not sound far from the original SATB versions and I’m all in for something that makes life easier.
Christmas Cantatas and Medleys
Moving onto new music cantatas, Joseph M. Martin’s “A Weary World Rejoices” is an amalgam of beloved carols and original anthems by Martin. While orchestrated for woodwinds, trumpet, horn, trombone, percussion, piano, harp and strings, Martin’s cantata is also performable with a downloadable audio track, offering several possibilities for performing the piece. This piece is perfect for choral directors looking for an ‘all-in-one’ compilation score weaving congregational participation, prayers (I suspect probably customisable), instrumental solos and choir moments.
Known best for his Broadway and animated show arrangements (Okhlahoma!, Mary Poppins, Prince of Egypt), I was quite pleased to listen to John Leavitt’s A Midnight Clear Cantata. With lots of stylistic variety, the cantata can be performed with optional chamber orchestration, although I do find the orchestral accompaniment useful to enhance Leavitt’s lyrical style. Suitable for a Lessons and Carols service or a concert piece, I particularly enjoyed the final two movements, perhaps reminiscent of a final musical tableau where the cast is somewhat calm before breaking into the final chorus.
Switching to shorter and popular music medleys, Ryan O’Connell A Muppet Christmas Carol Medley will take you all the way back to 1992, when It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie was released. True to the Muppets’ zany parody style, the movie is modeled after Charles Dickens’ original story and features Michael Caine as Mr. Scrooge. I can see O’Connell’s arrangement fare well in school audiences with a bit of choreography and pair very well with “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.
In keeping the movie theme going, Mark Brymer’s snazzy Christmas at the Movies medley combines “Believe” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” from The Polar Express; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis; “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” from Home Alone and “Snow” from White Christmas.
Secular and Non-religious Holiday Pieces
To make December an inclusive experience for students, I’m recommending Douglas Mason’s Snowscape and Sean Ivory’s December Moon, two picturesque and calming pieces painting the gentle snowfall and the wonder of waking to a new world where things have shifted after sleeping. While Mason’s piece is better suitable for advanced SATB choirs, Ivory’s piece is available in both SSA and SATB formations. For pieces with a bit more drive, check out Daniel Schreiner’s Cold December Flies Away. For a more Scandi meditative piece, you’ll enjoy the simple but poignant Talve öö by Pärt Uusberg which depicts the calm of a winter’s night.
Finishing with big band and jazz secular arrangements, Kirby Shaw’s “Swingin’ Christmas Tree” will bring the cool cat ‘vibes’ to your performance while Mac Huff’s arrangement of Indina Menzel and Ariana Grande’s “A Hand for Mrs Claus” is upbeat, and deliciously witty in pointing out the undervalued role of Mrs Claus in running the show.