Scored for solo flute and choir, Winter Solstice Carol was commissioned by King's for the 1998 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and is dedicated to Stephen Cleobury. The English words are mine; they are intertwined with the plainchant Magnificat antiphon for the 2nd vespers of Christmas.
It is a great honour to be asked to write the new King's carol, and it would be dangerously easy to turn out a pretty piece of genteel Englishry. However, I have too great a respect for the musical, intellectual and moral rigour of King's (as a Trinity man, I admit this with some reluctance) to produce a sample of the woolly-minded pap which all too often passes for religious music.
The intellectual rigour of Cambridge was probably quickened by the rigour of its winters, which (despite all the valiant efforts of global warmers) have to be suffered to be believed. In the depths of a Cambridge winter it requires no imagination at all to appreciate the importance of the Winter solstice festival on to which Christmas was grafted. In those distant days, before central heating, anoraks, hot chocolate and thermal underwear, midwinter must have seemed seriously bleak, and Spring an improbable dream. At such times it must have been all too easy to despair; hence the need for a festive reminder that rebirth was somewhere at hand.
For us, too, despair is not difficult when we see what an unholy mess we have made of our planet. But despair is too easy a way out; hope may be harder, but it is all we have, and we must grasp it if we are to survive. Whoever and whatever Christ may have been, his birthday, like the rebirth of nature at Spring, is a powerful symbol of hope. In this carol I have brought together the Christian and non-Christian symbols, much as Christmas itself brings them together, in an attempt to celebrate that hope and turn it into a song which brings light out of darkness and warms the cockles of the heart.
© Giles Swayne