Carols, Australian and otherwise

australian_christmasWith Christmas in the shops, as usual much too soon, permit some words on Christmas carols.

On Christmas Eve some years ago, in the Canberra Times, Australian composers including Peter Sculthorpe and Stephen Leek bewailed Australia’s “fixation” on the Northern Hemisphere’s ‘white Christmas’ — especially in music — as “the ultimate cultural cringe”.

Well, yes and no. I would certainly like to be utterly rid of ‘red-nosed reindeers’ and ‘dashing through the snow’. Christmas cards with snow scenes are really silly in Australia. But for this Anglo-Celtic Australian, glorious Christmas carols such as Now we joy in this fest and Joy to the world are not ‘cultural cringe’ but cultural heritage.

For years, Leek has been trying to do something about it. A few year ago, his carol Under the Stars, written with lyricist Anne Williams, was published and aired. It celebrates the Australian tradition of carol singing in the open at night as well as the Christmas message of peace, love and compassion. The carol, commissioned for the ABC’s Limelight magazine, had one airing on ABC Classic FM and then nothing. Leek was disappointed but not surprised. Australian carols have long struggled to find their way into the popular consciousness, he says.

The most famous Australian carols are the series of fifteen by William James, composer, and John Wheeler, lyricist, written between 1948 and 1961. Both were employees of the ABC—James as federal director of music and Wheeler as a scriptwriter in general programming. The carols ring with Australian image tree ferns and Christmas bush; brolgas and wood larks; red dust and yellow moons. Favourites such as The Three Drovers, Carol of the Birds and The Silver Stars are in the Sky have remained a subtle presence in an Australian Christmas and were once learned by generations of Australian schoolchildren. But not so today, Leek says, as newer generations are less familiar with them. “The choruses are catchy but now seem dated. And the arrangements are less suited to a contemporary style of choral singing.” Leek has since used some themes of these original carols and expressed them in his own musical language. One of the reworked carols, Southern Cross, features in the new edition of the Oxford Book of Carols

Only one James and Wheeler song, Christmas Day, has made it into Together in Song, the Australian hymnal used by many churches.

How many other Australian composers have written Christmas carols? There are a few and, as Leek observes, the European tradition is a hard one to break. Ross Edwards’ Five Carols (1967) are unaccompanied motets for choir — Peter Sculthorpe’s Awake Glad Heart (1988) was written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. “It’s a setting of verse by 17th century English poet Henry Vaughan and the melody reflects this,” Sculthorpe says. But his earlier carol, Morning Song for the Christ Child (1966), for treble voices set to words by Roger Covell, is, as he describes it, “very much in my own style”.

Anne Boyd’s The Burning Babe (1980) was written at Pearl Beach on the NSW coast, yet its inspiration is an English renaissance one. Set to verses by 16th century Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, it also reflects her strong Anglo-Catholic faith. “I write in my own idiom,” she says. I don’t think of it as a northern hemisphere one. It’s the idiom that is right for the material and which resonates with my own musical style.

So why has a European flavour remained so popular in Christmas carols? Boyd makes an interesting observation: “When carols deal with religious subject matter they tend to go back to pre-industrial Europe.” Sculthorpe has another theory. ” A lot of it is driven by commerce,” he says, referring to the idealised theme of a snow-covered Christmas which has been popular with retailers for over a century.

“Whatever the reason, its frustrating,” Leek says. “A a proud Australian, I don’t understand why we can’t come to grips with this event in our own country. After all, the original nativity scene didn’t happen in the snow. As composers, we have to define what it is to be Australian in all our diversity.

Now I have another theory for the reason Australian carols are not catching on—copyright. The copyright in James and Wheeler’s classics was long owned by the Australian subsidiary of the British Chappell company, but this has now been swallowed up and is now a Warner company. The only edition of James and Wheeler’s carols now in print is published in Miami Florida!

James and Wheeler’s carols are on an ABC Classics CD 446 975-2 by the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir. It also includes works by Ross Edwards, Elliott Gyger, Stephen Whittington, Malcolm Williamson, Anne Boyd, Peter Sculthorpe, and Andrew Ford.