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Interview: Novello’s Choral Editor on Christmas Carols old and new

Choral music is experiencing a renaissance in the UK thanks to high-profile news stories such as Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir and the Military Wives choir whose single ‘Wherever You Are’ took the coveted Christmas number 1 spot last year. Christmas is of course the time of year when choral music comes into its own, but it’s likely you’ll only come across a tiny, over-played number of the huge range of Christmas carols available. Renowned choral publisher Novello offers a wealth of material for Christmas singers across traditional and popular genres, so we caught up with Choral Editor Jonathan Wikeley to ask what else choirs tiring of ‘Away in a Manger’ could try their hand at.

What does Novello publish for Christmas singers?

Jonathan: It’s amazing and incredibly heartening to see how many choirs across the country are willing to try something new at Christmas, as well as revisiting the old favourites. Novello offers such a wealth of material for the choral singer, the centrepiece of which is its series of three Noel! books, edited by David Hill. The most recent one, Noel! 3came out this summer, and has an enticing selection of well known tunes in new arrangements, and some beautiful – and easily learnable! – contemporary carols. As a set of three, these Noel! books really give a comprehensive overview of carols old and new.

The New Novello Choral Series has a new selection of Christmas pieces for church and community choirs looking for something a little bit different, and we also publish lots of carols individually by well-loved composers such as Eric Whitacre, Paul Mealor, John Tavener, Richard Rodney Bennett, along with many others.

On the pop side, we’re constantly bringing out single sheets of Christmas hits past and present – and the Christmas Pops book offers a cheeky, close-harmony-style look at some classic Christmas tunes. And of course there are the stalwarts which we’ve been publishing for years: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah, and lots more.

What’s your personal favourite Christmas carol?

Jonathan: Hmm, that’s a difficult one, and it tends to change from year to year. I’m a big fan of Robert Pearsall’s arrangment of In dulci jubilo and I also love Jean Mouton’s eight-part motet Nesciens mater.  I’ve also just discovered Richard Allain’s ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ (featured in Noel! 3), which is absolutely beautiful.

Some people might be bored of hearing or singing ‘Jingle Bells’ – do you publish anything a bit different they might be interested in?

Jonathan: Andrew Cusworth’s ‘There Is No Rose‘ is a fantastic new carol that’s a little bit different. It’s easy to sing – in fact I conducted it with my choir last night, and it went down a storm. Or, Christopher Hussey has just done a superb new arrangement of ‘White Christmas, again easy to sing, and with a luscious piano part.

Carl Rutti’s version of ’I Wonder as I Wander‘  is a jazzy new take on a favourite poem and is becoming very popular, and Stuart Nicholson’s arrangement of ‘Ding Dong! Merrily on High‘ is brilliant – well worth a look. In fact, John Rutter has just orchestrated it, if you’ve got an orchestra to hand!

What do you think makes a good Christmas carol, musically?

Jonathan: I think at Christmas time people like a good tune, so that’s something to bear in mind. It’s important to get a good variety of tunes in a concert programme. When we put Noel! 3 together we made a point of including a healthy selection of faster carols. It’s all very well having the slush, but you need a palate cleanser along the way to keep people awake.

Thanks Jonathan! 

With very best wishes for Christmas and the new year from all of us at Rhinegold Education

All the music Jonathan mentions is available from Musicroom, and you can visit Novello’s website here.