When I was directing a church choir, I’d like to think I was pretty organised. By December, I’d have decided what we were singing in the Christmas carol service. That said, there are lots of reasons why that’s not always possible, and just occasionally, we all need some last-minute, quick-to-learn Christmas choral pieces.
Christmas tends to be a time for musical ‘old favourites’, but there’s a huge amount of Christmas choral repertoire currently untapped. As I was thinking about this blog post in which I explored ways we could support composers, I asked for suggestions on Twitter for this post. I asked composers to suggest any Christmas choral pieces they’d written which met the following criteria:
- Could be learnt and rehearsed fairly quickly, say within a 4-6 week timeframe
- Accessible to as wide a range of choirs as possible, thinking especially about the resources available to them
- Preferably newly- or recently-published.
From the suggestions received, I have included 12 below. There is at least one piece by all the composers who got in touch. There were other suggestions too, and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t include more. I know people will say “you should have included…”, “there isn’t enough representation of…” etc.; however, I think there is a good cross-section here. As ever, I’m doing my best to support other composers, and I apologise in advance for any omissions!
Do check out the composers’ websites, social media and YouTube accounts too. Remember that in most cases, you can find lots more samples, both audio and score samples, by clicking through the links the the publisher’s or composer’s website.
1. Love is the Answer (Thomas Hewitt Jones)
Soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics seamlessly combine in this enchanting carol from the pen of Thomas Hewitt Jones. Intended as an antidote to the gloom and confusion of the pandemic, Love is the Answer is designed to inspire and uplift singers and audiences alike. Following this 2021 publication, a congregational version is available as a free download from the publisher.
2. Peace from God (arr. Timothy Rogers)
Peace from God is an exquisite setting of a simple Ukrainian folk-Song. The arrangement follows a verse-chorus pattern, with a refrain “Sing we merrily, sing nowell, Sing the babe, Emmanuel”. The nature of this carol is particularly topical at the moment, with its haunting text “Peace we may not understand, In a weary strife-worn land”. The carol is straightforward to learn, though there is some divisi in both the upper and lower parts. There is something quite beautiful about the simplicity of this carol.
Peace from God, a Ukrainian folk-song arranged for Unaccompanied SATB by Timothy Rogers, is published by Encore Publications.
3. As Joseph was a-walking (Bernard Hughes)
This is exactly what I had in mind when I first sent out my appeal for quick-to-learn Christmas choral ideas. Bernard Hughes writes a memorable melody which is easy to learn. The individual voice parts are singable, and the overall effect is most satisfying. The piano provides gentle chordal support to the vocal lines, and there is a descant in the final verse.
As Joseph was a-walking by Bernard Hughes, is set for SATB and Piano (or Harp), and published by Wild Woods Music.
4. I Saw Three Ships (arr. Olivia Sparkhall)
When I was running a church choir, as numbers often fluctuated, and inevitably, members aged (and departed), I was always on the lookout for pieces with flexible scoring. Olivia Sparkhall‘s simple, but fun arrangement of the traditional carol, I Saw Three Ships is scored for two-part voices and piano. This gives plenty of scope for both upper, lower, and upper and voices combined. The accompaniment is supportive, and the fact the range has been carefully chosen makes this a most useful last-minute Christmas choral idea.
I Saw Three Ships, an English Traditional Carol arranged by Olivia Sparkhall for Two-Part Voices and Piano is published by Lindsay Music.
5. I Sing of a Maiden (Christopher Maxim)
Christopher Maxim‘s setting of the familiar traditional text, I Sing of a Maiden, is simply beautiful. The composer has shown real sensitivity to the text, and the music is evocative and atmospheric. The individual vocal parts are singable and straightforward, yet the overall effect is sumptuous.
I Sing of a Maiden, an anonymous text set by Christopher Maxim for Unaccompanied SATB, is published by Paraclete Press.
6. Hush, My Dear (Chris Hutchings)
This is a simple, hymn-like setting of words adapted from Isaac Watts, making it a really accessible last-minute Christmas choral addition from Chris Hutchings. Although the tune is repeated for each of the three verses, this leaves plenty of scope for expression. The overall effective is peaceful and enchanting.
Hush, My Dear is set by Chris Hutchings for SATB, and is available from MusicSpoke.
7. Lullay My Liking (Gerda Blok-Wilson)
This folk-like setting of the traditional text by Gerda Blok-Wilson offers a real alternative to some of the standard Christmas repertoire. The individual vocal parts are catchy, and whilst this looks complex on paper, the piece would be easy-to-learn, with the resulting effect most enjoyable.
Lullay My Liking is set by Gerda Blok-Wilson for Unaccompanied SATB, and is published by Cypress Choral Music.
8. Away in a Manger (arr. Michael Higgins)
I’m conscious that I’ve included quite a few ‘alternative’ Christmas choral ideas in this post, but I know that sometimes, we all need a new arrangement of a familiar favourite. Michael Higgins has done just that in his arrangement of Away in a Manger, set here for SATB and Piano (or Harp), but also available in an SSA arrangement. As the description says: “The piano/harp accompaniment twinkles gently around the voices, contributing towards the magical character of the arrangement.”
Away in a Manger, a traditional carol arranged for SATB and Piano (or Harp) by Michael Higgins, is published by Oxford University Press.
9. He Had Not Where to Lay His Head (Alison Willis)
Alison Willis sets an intriguing text by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, based on Matthew 8:20. I thought the text particularly poignant: “Princes and kings had palaces, with grandeur could adorn each tomb, for him who came with love and life they gave no room.” The setting is straightforward though with some interesting rhythmic variety. One of the things I particularly liked was the sensitivity displayed in the setting of the unusual text.
He Had Not Where to Lay His Head by Alison Willis, is set for Unaccompanied SATB, and published by Encore Publications.
10. Here is the Little Door (Owain Park)
It was hard to choose just one of Owain Park‘s Five Carols, but his setting of Here is the Little Door is especially effective. Straightforward to learn, but with plenty of space for expression and storytelling, it’s a real alternative to the Howells. The setting was commissioned by BBC Music Magazine in 2019, and Owain writes: “at first meditative and subdued before becoming more colourful and lively”.
Here is the Little Door by Owain Park is set for Unaccompanied SATB, and is available in Five Carols, published by Chester Novello.
11. Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (harm. Cleobury)
Tim Rogers writes: “This year  I have been trying to mark what would have been the 40th anniversary of Sir Stephen Cleobury’s arrival at King’s. His harmonisation of ‘Infant holy’ was sung in Polish at the 1993 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I may be entirely wrong, but I rather suspect that the foreign language performance during this particular carol service was intended to mark the changing political landscape in Poland. I have always loved the direct nature of Cleobury’s harmonisation, sung in English on the 1994 recording from King’s.”
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, a Polish Traditional Carol, harmonised by Stephen Cleobury, is set for Unaccompanied SATB, and published by Encore Publications.
12. Carol of the Light (David Barton)
I’m aware that the majority of the Christmas choral ideas I’ve given here are for SATB, or at the very least, for two-part voices. So, I thought I’d end with one of my own, and it really is a simple, quick-to-learn Christmas choral idea as it’s set for just unison voices and piano. Carol of the Light was written in 2012 and focuses on a seasonal theme of the transition from darkness to light.
Carol of the Light by David Barton, is set for Unison Voices and Piano (or Organ), and is published by Paraclete Press.
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