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Blog » Does Contemporary Music Do Christmas?

16 Dec  


I said last time that December is the month without contemporary music. By this I meant performances of contemporary music. There exists plenty of Christmas music by contemporary composers, though it often seems to be ignored in favour of more traditional fare. This set me thinking. Is there something about Christmas that contemporary music is unable to tackle? And might this point to a wider problem? As we approach Christmas, concerts emphasize the catchy, the tuneful and the consonant and, at the same time, a lot less contemporary music is played.


There have always been composers whose style can comfortably incorporate the kind of straightforwardness that Christmas demands. John Rutter is an obvious example, though, like many, I have a hard time stomaching much of his output. But at least his style is recognisably consistent. The same could be said of the Welsh composer William Mathias. He died in 1992, but his A Babe is Born, Ave Rex (especially the movement  Sir Christèmas) and Bell Carol are perennially popular. These works (apart from the rather saccharine Bell Carol, perhaps) have a harder-edged energy that sets them apart from Rutter, but at the same time manage to capture the tunefulness that Christmas demands. Like the Rutter they are also consistent with the rest of the composer’s style.


In contrast, some composers adapt or even water-down their style to accommodate Christmas. Schoenberg’s Weihnachtsmusik, an arrangement of Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, may have arisen as just one more arrangement for his Society for Private Musical Performances. Even so, it strikes me as a startling admission of the expressive limitations of his emerging serial style. Which is not to deny that it is a gorgeous piece. In contrast, his pupil Webern, in Dormi Jesu, managed to stick to his stylistic guns whilst producing a piece of sublimely simple beauty. But it is the kind of beauty that would probably leave the average Christmas concertgoer utterly bemused. More recently the same might be said of, say, the setting of The Burning Babe by Malcolm Bruno. It is uncompromising and ascetically beautiful, but does not, for me, capture the spirit of the season.


It could be argued that such music falls into a more serious category than mere carols, in the same way as Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, Handel’s Messiah or Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ. But the problem with such a parallel is obvious. Those three works are much loved by the average concertgoer. Furthermore The Shepherd’s Farewell from L’enfance du Christ has become a popular carol in its own right. I can only draw one conclusion: the older works are admired largely because of their use of tonality. I know the modernist/postmodernist argument as related to tonality is nothing new, but a festival such as Christmas brings the debate sharply into focus. The popularity and usefulness of a piece of contemporary Christmas music will be in direct relation to its ability to encompass tonality. Take two reasonably widely performed works by living composers, for example: Peter Maxwell Davies’ Five Carols and Judith Weir’s Illuminare Jerusalem. In Five Carols Maxwell Davies engages unashamedly with tonal and modal melodies, though he manages to imbue each movement with a dose of dissonance that makes the work far from saccharine. Weir manages an even cleverer trick. Illuminare Jerusalem seems to pull no harmonic punches at all. But it is impossible to deny that the piece relies for its effect on the tonal-like resolution on the words that make up the title.


One might also add that Christmas, by its need to include people and its universality (at least in Western culture), is the Gebrauchmusik festival par excellence. And if composers want to write Christmas music that is useful and performed widely it will normally include elements of tonality. The average carol singer cannot perform something in a consistently modernist style. Is it too much, therefore, to expect him to listen to it in a concert during the rest of the year?


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 BrianN commenting on Does Contemporary Music Do Christmas?:
22 December 2011 at 06:01

As I read your interesting article on Christmas music I was reminded of similar thoughts that I have had over the years concerning just this problem: that of language, and it's associated emotional impact through the meaning of the words. I agree entirely with your observations, but have no quick solutions, of course, but I believe that a composer today who writes music that reflects language and it's meaning faces an intrinsic dilemma of style.

What is the problem? Those composers who are concerned with an emotional impact in their music, who start from the premise that they are writing to reflect a certain emotion, are the ones that are faced with this conflict between text language and music language. But, those composers who write in a more modern abstract style, and who are (generally) not concerned with imbuing their music with a human emotional impact, then this is not so pressing for them. (It is at this point that I feel that I might be completely misunderstood, because I am trying to put into a journalistic time frame something that should be discussed in a book!) Nevertheless, for those composers who want to reflect the ideas behind words, and this often means emotions, too, then the words can often seem to be at odds with the contemporary language that composers can use today. As you say in your article, for some, they embrace these textual restrictions readily, easily, and successfully, and those composers tend to use tonality as the basis of their language, and it is successful for the very reason that their musical language matches the textual language, as both embrace the need to reflect certain human emotions. We have gone beyond that, in music, and developed languages that are more abstract in nature, as can be seen in the 'complexity' movement, the 'conceptual' musics, and even the more general contemporary styles that are abundant now. But, probably, those emotive Christmas responses are not in the vocabulary of such musics, it is only when one wants to reflect the "meaning" behind the words, and, again, that usually means some emotional response in the music, that one comes up against the problem that is cited in your article, which is of matching the music to the words and their ' meaning'. Thus, I think that a contemporary composer (assuming a contemporary style) might have a problem setting Wordsworth for example, because of the inherent stylistic traits of the poet's language, which matches tonality more because it is functional in nature. It is the same with Christmas carols. But, I do think that it is an intriguing compositional problem, and for some, resorting to tonality ( as you say in your article) is the solution. There is nothing wrong in that: it is a personal choice (of style). However, I think that the larger problem, Christmas carols being only one example of it, is one of the major issues that faces certain composers today, and depends so much on a compositional solution as much as a stylistic one. But that is yet another book!
Brian Noyes

 Christian Morris commenting on Does Contemporary Music Do Christmas?:
22 December 2011 at 15:31

Thanks for these perceptive comments Brian; I think youíve managed to put the whole issue rather better than me. I hadnít recognised that part of the problem relates to the fact that a text, of any type, will already contain emotions that might limit a composerís ability to write in his own style.

I think for me, however, the problem is more general. I canít help feeling that a composer's music should be able to represent and to convey all human emotions and it is the lack of generosity on the part of contemporary composers in the field of more positive emotions, those that might require the use of forms of tonality, that alienates listeners from us. I donít think anymore that it is a problem with dissonance, but rather unrelenting dissonance. Whilst I absolutely defend the right of artists to pursue whatever creative paths they wish, perhaps we shouldnít be surprised that listeners shun those who produce Ďdifficultí works. Ultimately, Boulez and the rest of the modernists have lost; we have had 100 years for the public to accept the works of Schoenberg et al, but whilst the average concert-goer might respect this music, I think very few love it. Christmas, with its relentless positivity, struck me as a good way of bringing this into focus. I find it hard, for example, to imagine a modernist carol becoming popular. Perhaps composers need to accept this reality and (deep breath from me here) play to the gallery, at least a tiny little bit?

 Autoharp commenting on Does Contemporary Music Do Christmas?:
01 February 2012 at 15:07

I am not sure modernist music and Christmas go together. It works for the subculture that likes this type of music, and maybe the hipsters who want to like everything the average people don't. Even I can't say I would see a modernist tune ( if there is a tune to it; and here lies the problem) becoming popular. I think the standard carols win over any creative outburst, and they sound lovely and joyful, especially with a backing track played on an <a href="">autoharp</a>. So, I think modernist music is still not in it's popularity heyday.

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