By Peter Niedmann
One main element of Christmas is gift-giving. Finding a special gift for someone we care about takes an open mind and heart. I enjoy seeing the response of a person opening a gift even more than receiving a gift myself. There’s a satisfaction that the person feels you really know them.
There is another kind of Christmas gift in a category of its own. This is the gift of Christmas music; pieces that were written decades or even centuries ago that are brought to life every year through performances and recordings. The fondness we have for this music is, of course, tied up in the joy of the season and the nostalgia for the innocence of our youth. Christmas music is full of tenderness and joy—both of which are hard to find in the daily news of a hard and coarse culture.
Everybody’s list of favorite Christmas music will vary slightly among us. But, there are those pieces that virtually every church musician would include: Handel’s Messiah…Britten’s Ceremony of Carols…and the many well-loved carol arrangements of David Willcocks. Between his popular contributions to the Carols for Choirs collections, and his recordings conducting the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Sir David gave us all many beautiful gifts that we get to open and enjoy, year after year.
I was so fortunate to have known Sir David and worked under him at several choral symposia. He was a humble and joyful man who loved being with people and making music with them. He was a fabulous story-teller, with lots to tell—singing for Elgar as a little boy at Westminster Abbey…conducting new works of Vaughan Williams…and many more. Even with a chorus of amateurs, he worked to make the music as clear and beautiful as it could be. He would spend several minutes tuning a chord, or articulating a section of text with perfect, rhythmically-precise diction.
His great carol arrangements are sung in tens of thousands of churches and concert halls every December. They have become an expected and welcome part of Christmas. And, who doesn’t still get goose bumps when “that chord” sounds in the last verse of O Come, All Ye Faithful?
So, five days after Christmas, remember to say ‘thank you’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sir David Willcocks. He gave all of us some special Christmas gifts.