I have been beavering away on the new Christmas carol arrangement for Parliament Choir over the past few days. As ever with an arrangement as opposed to an original composition you need to work with what you have, which, in this kind of music, can often be relatively uncomplicated, something you would expect when you consider the communal nature of most carol singing.
The trick, if I have found it, is to think slightly outside the box in terms of what goes on around the melody, perhaps to find a small gesture that defines the carol and then expand it to become something textural, or maybe to introduce some subtle harmonic shift that brings freshness to a familiar melody. In some ways it is like painting a familiar object in unusual colours, the better to bring out aspects and features which might otherwise have been passed over, which have perhaps been ignored for many years.
One of the reasons that We Three Kings is my favourite arrangement is that it does all of these things, but the moment I enjoy best, that actually think is quite decent, is the final verse which begins with a double descant over the melody but then falls away at the final “O star of wonder”, at which point the music melts into simple (but effective, I hope) four-part imitation. The bit that always makes me smile is in bar 103, however, where the accompaniment (the trumpet in the orchestral version) then plays the “O star of wonder” melody in augmented note values over the top of the choir. Nice!
This kind of thing is exactly what I strive for when I write my music, the type of detail that a performer might well miss first, second, even third time through, but which they then suddenly notice and which casts fresh light on what was there before. I must admit that it also makes me very satisfied as a composer to be able to wring this kind of blood out of the musical stone, to weave lines where some might just plonk chords. That linear mode of thought is something that informed my keyboard playing in JEBO as well, as it happens.
Maybe it is all that Renaissance repertoire that I know, or perhaps it is all those Bach fugues, all those tiny details that JSB tucks away in the inner workings of his aural miracles, but that kind of writing, when required, sits at the heart of all I write, and explains quite why I was so disappointed when a certain conservatoire cut the harmony & counterpoint course I taught without consulting me, and after I had built up the number of students from three to twelve in two years. Perhaps that nagging shadow of Johann Sebastian, simultaneously my inspiration and the figure who makes me feel utterly inadequate, is why I feel so pleased when I end up with something that works, as I did last Friday morning, setting those musical wheels and gears in motion in – what else? – harmony.