Opera + Classical Music Features

musicOMH’s 2020 Classical Advent Calendar Day 19: Leontovych’s ‘Carol of the Bells’

Let’s have two treats today. First, you can’t have a musical Christmas without carols. Door 19 of our Classical Advent Calendar reveals one for us.

Mykola Leontovych’s Carol of the Bells has been a bit of a slow burner; written in 1914, it took a few decades for it to become part of the Western Christmas repertoire.

A minor key is somewhat unusual for a popular Christmas piece, and its strange almost solemn ostinato insistence is slightly chilling, but then, Dickens proved to us that not everything about Christmas is always bright and garish.

The rise in popularity of a cappella vocal ensembles in the past ten years or so has been amazing, and the styles and material arranged for some of these groups has moved well beyond the slightly arch Oxbridge delivery or ‘cool jazz’ Bach of groups formed in the 20th century, and it now seems to be de rigueur for a beatboxer to be included in the lineup.

The American group Pentatonix released their first album in 2012, and it included covers of songs by Nicki Minaj and Janelle Monáe; since then they’ve mined the charts for material, producing versions of numbers by Katy Perry, Daft Punk, Florence and the Machine, David Guetta, Ke$ha and Britney Spears, among many more. With three Christmas albums under their belt, they are due to release a fourth this year. Their arrangement of Carol of the Bells comes from their 2012 Christmas album.

Next, a Christmas tale of a Knight as explained by Benjamin Poore.

Just as Die Hard is in fact a Christmas movie – it’s about the importance of family and thwarting terrorists, after all – Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain is a Christmas opera.

It opens during the festive lull between Christmas and new year, with Arthur’s exuberant, youthful court amusing themselves with eating, drinking and carousing. But in the best tradition of Christmas stories, pace Charles Dickens, something spooky is around the corner – an enormous green man wielding a huge axe turns up with his own ideas for, as the original Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has it, a ‘Crystemas gomen’ – a Christmas game. 

The game is a grisly one. Anyone who fancies it can strike a blow at the Knight, provided they agree to receive one in return exactly one year later. Gawain steps up, and wields the axe. The Green knight’s head rolls off, but, terrifyingly, keeps on singing. This would be scary enough without the cavernous vowels of Sir John Tomlinson, for whom the role was written. Birtwistle’s Gawain is, as we might expect, about ritual and repetition, time and stasis – perfect listening for these interminable, lingering afternoons between Boxing Day and January 1st.  

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musicOMH’s 2020 Classical Advent Calendar Day 19: Leontovych’s ‘Carol of the Bells’