A Poet’s Christmas—conductor’s note

This concert takes its inspiration from a broadcast on the BBC Home Service on Christmas Eve in December 1944. Titled “A Poet’s Christmas”, it brought together British poets and composers to create new music for Christmas. Among the collaborations were works by W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, Edith Sitwell and Michael Tippett, and Frances Cornford and Lennox Berkeley—all of which you will hear as part of today’s program.

The 1944 “A Poet’s Christmas”, broadcast in the shadow of the Second World War and featuring some decidedly edgy Christmas music, served as the inspiration for today’s concert.

Complementing the 1944 repertoire is a collection of repertoire in which the text and music are of equal significance, including John Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb”; Kenneth Leighton’s eery setting of the Coventry Carol from the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors; and Peter Campbell’s setting of Katherine Firth’s beautifully Australian Christmas poem “In Advent Heat”.

The poets and composers represented in today’s “Poet’s Christmas” have all responded to the Christmas story in very individual and arresting ways. In Bruce Blunt’s text for Peter Warlock’s carol “Bethlehem Down” and in Edith Sitwell’s “The Weeping Babe”, for example, the events of Christmas morning are bound up with the inevitability of the crucifixion; others, such as Frances Cornford’s poem “There was neither grass nor corn” are more straightforward in their celebration of Christmas morning.

The result is a collection of music that presents many different perspectives on Christmas.

I am delighted to be able to include the work of so many Australians in our program, including several with a Canberra connection, and thus to showcase some of the extraordinary depth of talent that exists in poetry and in choral composition in this country.

  —David Mackay, December 2011

The programme for “A Poet’s Christmas” was:

  1. Morning-song for the Christ Child
    text: Roger Covell, music: Peter Sculthorpe
  2. Nativity
    text: James McAuley, music: Matthew Orlovich
  3. In Advent Heat
    text: Katherine Firth, music: Peter Campbell
  4. Shepherd’s Carol
    text: W.H. Auden, music: Benjamin Britten
  5. Christmas
    text: Michael Leunig, music: Calvin Bowman
  6. What did you get on your Christmas morn?
    text: Michael Leunig, music: Calvin Bowman
  7. The Lamb
    text: William Blake, music: John Tavener
  8. A Boy was Born
    music: Benjamin Britten
  9. Mary-darkness
    text: Jessica Powersmusic: David Mackay
  10. The Weeping Babe
    text: Edith Sitwell, music: Michael Tippett
  11. There was neither grass nor corn
    text: Frances Cornford, music: Lennox Berkeley
  12. Bethlehem Down
    text: Bruce Blunt; music: Peter Warlock
  13. A Wish
    text: Eleanor Farjeon, music: Judith Clingan
  14. Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child
    text: from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors (Coventry, 15th century), music: Kenneth Leighton
  15. Away in a manger
    text: verses 1 and 2: anonymous, Philadelphia 1885; verse 3 John McFarland, music: David Drury