I have always loved Christmas music, but never more so than when I became a mother for the first time to a little boy just 10 days before Christmas. Words like "Holy Infant, so tender and mild," or "Bless all the dear children in thy tender care," touched me profoundly as I would sit and rock my own tender infant.
For the past few weeks, I have been working on Christmas carol arrangements for violin and piano. So far, I've completed (minus those pesky little editing errors I keep finding) What Child Is This, Silent Night, and Coventry Carol/Pat-a-Pan. While I have tried to make each piece unique, one thing most of them have in common is that they are lullabies. Keeping that in mind, I have taken my musical inspiration from my own children.
In What Child Is This, I combine the tune with a simple original melody meant to sound like the music box my baby daughter listens to each night as she goes to sleep. Its "on" button within her reach, we also know when she wakes up, as she presses it to listen to her favorite tunes.
Silent Night begins with the violin accompanying itself with a pulsing rhythm on the lower string, a constant, steady beat similar to that of a rocking chair, or a swing. (I got the idea from one of Bach's solo violin works, the Andante from his A minor Sonata.) I continue the idea of the rocking chair in the second verse as the piano plays the melody along with a simple and repetitive accompaniment and the violin plays a counter-melody, and in the third verse where the violin continues gently swinging across open strings in a new key (the glorious D major) to represent "love's pure light."
Coventry Carol/Pat-a-Pan (I feel I need to call this something else, like a "Medley," except that it's not really a medley, or is it?) is all about "opposition in all things." I decided to imitate some of the old Baroque Sonata movements that alternate slow and fast sections (such as the final movement in the "Devil's Trill Sonata). Coventry Carol and Pat-a-Pan contrast with each other in their meters as well as in their tempos and overall character.
Like Silent Night and What Child Is This, Coventry Carol is a lullaby. But it is not a lullaby to the baby Jesus. It is a lullaby for the "Innocents," the babies killed by King Herod in his tyrannical attempt to prevent Jesus from overthrowing him. At first, I balked at the pairing of this sad song with Pat-a-Pan, a jovial piece which invites children to celebrate Christmas with fife and drum. But the words in the final verse helped me to reconcile the juxtaposition of good and evil: "God and man today become more in tune than fife and drum." While terrible things happen to innocent people, all things will be made right through the Lord Jesus. Jesus himself experienced unbearable suffering to fulfill his mission. To quote another hymn, he was "once forsaken, left alone," but is "now exalted to a throne." And through Him, we can all be reconciled to God in spite of our own shortcomings.
One of the joys of arranging Christmas carols is that they are loved by every denomination, and I hope I will have opportunities to arrange and perform them each Christmas season. One such opportunity will be this coming Saturday, November 28th in Bountiful, Utah at the Cheney Family Christmas Concert.
Update: I will be playing one of my arrangements this Saturday in the Swayne Auditorium at NNU in Nampa during the Una Voce Women's Choir concert. Start time is 7 p.m. (I think).