Enchanted Carols in the making

Howard Goodall explains hows his new album Enchanted Carols came into being.

I am sure I am not alone in thinking of the 20 or so best-known Christmas carols as the perfect embodiment of the spirit and message of the festival, more so than all the other trappings of the season, adorable as they are – the trees, the baubles, the red-cheeked, fluffy-bearded Santa. 

At the heart of the Nativity story lies an idea that can move Christians and non-Christians alike – namely that a child born in obscurity could change the world: this idea, underpinned as it is with a plea for compassion and human brotherhood, is expressed beautifully and memorably in those catchy, endearing tunes, many of them inherited from an aural, folk tradition that predates hymn books, candle processions and lavishly exhilarating organ accompaniments.

When we think of our childhood experiences of Christmas, these melodies and ringing phrases are the trigger to the waves of emotion attached to them – for many, indeed, carols are Christmas.

I feel as if I have had the famous Carols for Choirs arrangements of the most familiar of them somehow hard-wired into me, with their thrilling, last-verse descants and their resonant harmonies, so returning to the ‘top twenty’ list of carols for this CD presented me with a challenge: how to hear these tunes and words afresh, how to give them ‘my’ sound without diluting the charm of the familiar. Composing the half dozen brand-new ones in the collection, mostly settings of medieval Latin words, was relatively easy compared to this task!

I had two guiding stars on this journey of reinvention – one was the distinctive vocal colour of the Enchanted Voices singers themselves, outstandingly skilled female choristers from the Anglican ‘evensong’ tradition, interwoven with chamber organ, handbells and solo cello. The sound we developed in the first Enchanted Voices CD, with its settings of the Beatitudes, was characterised by long, flowing phrases of newly-devised ‘chant’ against a gently undulating accompaniment.

My other guiding star was the knowledge that the melodic arc of many a classic carol is essentially derived from plainsong.  Some of the best are plainsong in its purest form – Veni, Veni Emmanuel, Puer Nobis Nascitur, Gaudete. This seemed a neat fit with the Enchanted Voices sound and a perfect starting point.

Strange though it may seem, I composed the settings on this CD in the baking heat of a French summer, so I had to let my imagination take complete control – evoking the snow, the figgy pudding and those chilly shepherds! As with all my composing, though, the music emerges, fully formed, out of nothing, and very soon I was immersed in those hauntingly high soprano lines, gliding effortlessly above the horizon, echoing across the centuries, somehow bringing together the ancient purity of the medieval past and the here and now. I hope we have succeeded in making the meeting between them as rewarding to listen to as it has been to conceive.