for mixed voices (SATB div) a cappella
Text: English (R S Thomas)
The set of ‘Four Carols for Dark Times’ was written between 2003–5 and commissioned at the rate of one piece per year for the Birmingham Bach Choir to perform at their Christmas concerts. When I reached the final carol I was concerned that if they were to be performed as a set they needed a ‘scherzo’ movement and so I wrote Carol as a balancing movement. The poems are all by that extraordinary Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas (1913–2000) whose poetry speaks to me with a directness unmatched in my experience by any other 20th century poet. I have set many of his poems to music in various forms. Thomas’s writing is rich with the imagery of human frailty in relation to religion. The final poem, Festival, is as good an example as any of his approach: the trappings of Christmas – gold, holly, mistletoe – are used to contrast the cheapness of our self-centred celebration with the commitment required to nurture real faith.
In terms of performance it is crucial for the conductor to get under the spirit of the words finding all the necessary colours to project Thomas’s vivid imagery as effectively as possible. It is equally important to address the textural challenges in the music with careful attention to fine blend and balance between voices. Be sensitive to occasional issues of time spacing between phrases at key moments, which are often indicated by commas.
Although these carols are designed to be sung as a set, they may be performed individually.
Recommended recording: To Music (Regent REGCD274) by The Chamber Choir of Birmingham Conservatoire, directed by Paul Spicer.
Paul Spicer is one of the UK’s most widely respected choral conductors. He studied at the Royal College of Music where he was a composition student of Herbert Howells. As director of the Finzi Singers, he made many recordings on the Chandos label focusing on his specialist area of 20th century British music, and he currently conducts the Birmingham Bach Choir and the Whitehall Choir in London. He teaches choral conducting at Oxford and Durham Universities, and at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where he also directs the Chamber Choir which has an increasing reputation through its regular recordings. Paul’s choral workshops take him all over the world and his English Choral Experience foundation runs choral courses in the UK and Europe. He has written biographies of Herbert Howells and Sir George Dyson and his compositional output includes the large-scale Easter Oratorio and Advent Oratorio, a choral symphony Unfinished Remembering, and The Deciduous Cross, a five movement work for choir and wind instruments, as well as many smaller-scale works.