John Rutter is well known as a composer of popular Christmas music for choirs. Songs like his ‘Star carol’ and ‘Shepherds’ pipe carol’ are bright and breezy, easy to learn and fun to sing.
The piece my choir is about to perform at our Christmas concert – Rutter’s When Icicles Hang – is, we’ve found, rather more challenging. It’s a cycle of six songs with lyrics from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, contrasting the harsh, melancholy conditions of winter—dark nights, biting winds and barren landscapes—with the ways in which people fight back against the gloom.
You could imagine that the movements give us a glimpse into six different rooms on a winter’s night.
- ‘Icicles’, a setting of a poem from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, paints a picture of freezing weather outside, with an owl hooting in the dark and a woman called ‘greasy Joan’ stirring the pot for a somewhat meagre meal.
- In ‘Winter nights’ by Thomas Campion (an Elizabethan musician and lawyer), we’re inside the hall of a considerably richer household, with a blazing fire, flowing wine, wax candles and a high standard of music and dancing for entertainment.
- ‘Good ale’ (15th century) takes us into the humorous company of, I think, a group of wassailers (door-to-door carol singers), demanding payment in booze and rejecting all offers of nutritious meat.
- ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ is Shakespeare’s work again (from As You Like It)—a melancholy minstrel’s song about false friendship, more bitter than winter weather.
- The minstrel turns rather pious with ‘Winter wakeneth all my care’, a 14th-century lament about the inevitability of death—a subject probably at the top of people’s minds during the era of the Plague.
- As if to banish those depressing thoughts, the last movement, ‘Hay, ay’, is sung in the heart of the tavern, celebrating Yule and New Year with friends and beer.
The music has many beauties but isn’t easy to learn. The ‘cold’ songs are discordant, with spiky, jagged melodies. The drinking songs bring their own difficulties, with stomping rhythms and sudden changes of time signature. They’d be best performed with tankards to swing, although this is something you’re unlikely to see in an English choral performance. (Shame!)
One of the most intriguing things about these pieces, though, is the way they bring ordinary medieval and Elizabethan experiences to life. Most of the history we learn from those times is about battles and power struggles among royalty and nobility. Poetry and songs tend to reveal more intimate details about the lower classes and their attitudes.
Some of those details show up different ways of thinking from our own. In ‘Icicles’, the owl’s call is described as ‘a merry note’, whereas we think of it as a spooky, unsettling sound. Some words can be misleading: in the same song, I wondered how poor countryfolk could get access to ‘roasted crabs’ – until a bit of research revealed that they’re crab apples, not seafood.
In many ways, though, the experiences are easy for us to identify with. Even with centrally heated homes as a refuge, we know what a bitter wind feels like against the face, and we understand the simple comfort of hot food, drink, friends and music.
If our concert audience feels that contrast between iciness and warmth as we sing, we will have done the piece justice.