A version of this blog piece was originally written for the Independent.
This week on the Today programme, two well known names in classical music – Observer critic Fiona Maddocks and impresario Raymond Gubbay – discussed an article in The Economist that highlighted the resurgence of carol singing at Christmas.
Their observations are spot on. Whether it is friends and colleagues arranging carol sessions or the numerous invites to concerts that have been populating my inbox, the sheer volume of seasonal music-making happening this month feels novel.
Also noticeable is the change in the music being sung on the streets and used in advertising. Cheesy Christmas songs about presents and kissing Santa are still knocking around but carols, both secular and religious, seem to me to be making up a larger chunk of the backdrop of sound that we all experience at Christmas time.
It is not hard to work out why such a community-spirited activity as carol singing is making a comeback. Austerity and economic uncertainty lead most of us to balance the usual rampant commercialism with something more meaningful, and indeed cheaper.
But it is not only carol singing. Church-based concert-going seems to be increasingly popular at the moment. Perhaps the opportunity for both reflection and distance from daily life offered by our historic buildings is what many people need right now.
It felt good to take an hour and a half out of my day on Thursday to visit St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for a choral concert as part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. The pews were uncomfortable and the noise of sirens occasionally interruptive, but the voices of early music choral group Gallicantus made the experience well worth it.
The ensemble is led by singer and academic Gabriel Crouch and the concert represented, he said, possibly the first time in three centuries that some of the music performed had been heard in public. The programme, entitled ‘Dialogues of Sorrow’, was built around music composed in reaction to the death in 1612 of 18-year-old Prince Henry, the elder son of James I and great national hope until his premature demise.
It is a gloomy subject but the music was glorious, especially the rich and densely layered textures of the madrigals. And it was all written during a time of national crisis and mourning for a specific event which, as Crouch observed, set off a chain of events that led England down a path towards Charles I and the chaos of civil war. Taking a moment to remember the crises of yesteryear puts the problems we face today very much in context.
Spitalfields Music Winter Festival runs until 20 December. Photo credit: Alys Tomlinson.