Thank you for the music

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Thank you for the music. No, this is not a tribute to the Abba song: but the infinitely superior possible title for this piece was used in generous style by the egregious Mr Banks when he Tweeted “Arise, Sir Christmas”!

But there are lots of thank yous to be said. I’ve had a great couple of days! Actually, I’ve been somewhat tied to social media and telephone because so many people have got in touch to congratulate me on winning the Radio 3 Breakfast Carol Competition 2017. So thank you to all of those correspondents, and to those who were kind enough to vote for me – or, rather, for my carol.

Then there are the friends and family who helped get the piece written. It was the fruit of labour carried out in Northumberland (where else to find inspiration?). Indeed, we were walking in the College Valley with visiting daughter Rachel, her boyfriend Ben and (inevitably) Bruno the dog: it was towards the end of October, with only 10 days until the submission deadline. I felt I should write a setting of a set of words that I liked: but I hadn’t got that vital initial germ of an idea. As we descended College Valley, leaving the younger people to climb Cheviot from the back end, a shape came to me for the chorus of Nowells. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nowadays composers, even pretend ones like me, use an industry-standard software package called Sibelius. Not only does it produce a beautiful and legible score, just as a word-processed document is much easier to read than handwritten scrawl: the clever technology also plays back to you the music that you’ve written, albeit in a distinctly inhuman synthesised “voice”. Naturally I was trying not to annoy the other inhabitants with that playback, so used headphones: but when the others started humming the chorus around the house, I realised that maybe I had, after decades of trying, succeeded in writing what music broadcasters seem nowadays to call an “earworm”, a tune that gets stuck in your brain.

This is reckoned to be a good thing: catchy, memorable tunes tend to be winners. I can assure you, however, that this composer has suffered for his art: I heard the piece rehearsed and recorded by the BBC Singers, the only full-time professional classical choir in the country, and then heard it played repeated on Radio 3. The result? A significant loss of sleep as the chorus has gone round, and round, and round in my brain through the dark watches of the night!

Six composers, conductor David Hill and the BBC Singers in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio

The BBC singers proved themselves ultimate professionals, rehearsing and recording all six of the shortlisted carols equally superbly and without fear or favour (isn’t that a BBC motto?), expertly conducted by David Hill. I noticed the tenors and basses couldn’t resist grinning towards the end of my piece, where they get some jolly and quite athletic bits to sing: I wondered then whether I was in with a chance.

I must admit that, when I entered the piece, I was just having a punt: when I was shortlisted, I realised that things might be getting serious. And I should add that the BBC is very sincere about it. The shortlist of six was drawn up by some heavyweight and experienced judges, including David Hill and Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music. They took the job seriously, admitting that they saw this competition as an opportunity to promote new music.

Lots of us (certainly including Mrs Trafford and me) tend to be lazy about listening to new music: in general we listen only to what we already know. The argument about the carol competition is that, within the particular mood and setting of Christmas, listeners are more likely to give new music a chance – just as millions worldwide listen carefully to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, absorbing both new carols and old favourites alike.

Thank you also to Petroc Trelawny, a consummate link-man and speaker/introducer, as well as a charming interviewer. And to my five rivals on the shortlist: all were charming, collegial – and sent gracious and generous congratulations when the result was announced.

That’s why I feel I can title this piece “thank you for the music”. Thank you to the BBC for promoting new music: for giving me and five others our moment in the sun (fifteen minutes of fame?), and encouraging reportedly hundreds of other composers to have a go at getting something down on paper. Thank you also to those who have offered so much wisdom and technical advice both on this piece and on my choral (and other writing) writing over the years: my gurus know who they are!

And thanks to all who voted for my piece, which you can hear yet again by clicking here.

So now that’s over… let’s get stuck into Christmas!

So now it is indeed time to “Welcome Sir Christemas”. I wish all VOTN readers a happy one, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

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