The idea of a programme, especially a choral programme, mixing contemporary and medieval works is nothing new, but the mixture takes on a special significance in the context of a programme of Christmas music. Since the expressive object centres on an event which is at once buried deep in the past and annually renewed, oldness and newness are inextricably intertwined in the very concept of Christmas.
And yet there is perhaps something more to this disc’s contrasts and similarities than just the combination of old and new. All of the modern pieces recorded here date from the last eleven years of the twentieth century and from the first decade of the twenty-first. Fifty or a hundred years ago, a mixture of then-contemporary works with medieval music on a Christmas theme would have been an odder and much more unlikely prospect. And while modernism prompted a number of composers to look to early music for technical and sometimes stylistic inspiration, at the same time it led them away from writing anything so functional as a Christmas carol. There were of course exceptions – perhaps most significantly Peter Maxwell Davies. And the example of other composers, earlier in the twentieth century, who also looked to older music to renew their styles after Romanticism, is relevant too: the Tudor revivalism of Ralph Vaughan Williams springs immediately to mind. But it is only on the other side of modernism that a disc like the present one could have arisen – that composers like Stuart MacRae and Richard Causton could have produced such exquisite small-scale choral works without a sense of abrupt departure from the more complex, less overtly traditional idioms of their instrumental music.
Music after modernism is often about returning to something – to simplicity, to folk music, to an engagement with tonality or with older forms. Sometimes, of course, one discovers that what one returns to has changed: the subtly poised E minor tonality of Causton’s Cradle Song would not have been quite the same thing in the hands of an earlier composer. At other times, one finds new meaning in what one has been doing all along. Howard Skempton’s modernism was always a modernism apart, and Skempton was always more intrigued by the strange power of simplicity than by the overt complexity of the European avant-garde. Carols therefore may seem a more natural departure for him; but his very personal route to the destination brings its own delights and its own freshness.