For SATB Chorus a cappella
In 1990, South Wilts A Cappella asked for a carol to perform in Salisbury Cathedral. Searching for suitable texts in an anthology of metaphysical poets, I came across An Hymne of the Nativity, sung as by the Shepheards by Richard Crashaw (ca. 1613-1649). The poem is several pages long, shared between two shepherds, Thyrsis and Tityrus, and a chorus of more shepherds. I was particularly taken with the first Full Chorus verse, with which my carol starts. Each line contains a paradoxical opposition – eternity shut in a span, summer in winter, day in night – conveying the startling miracle of this event with remarkable economy. This verse is not quite a refrain, but its first phrase returns in the middle of the carol, and the complete verse is repeated at The End. The whole carol is supported by a rocking figure, in which the accompanying voices sing variously “Wellcome, wonder,” “Wellcome blessed wonder” and “Wellcome heaven blessed wonder,” suggesting the hushed awe of the shepherds – or perhaps the gentle beating of angelic wings.
Text: An Hymne of the Nativity, sung as by the shepheards by Richard Crashaw
First performance: 20th December 1990, Salisbury Cathedral.