Composing for Christmas


After two years of judging BBC Radio 3’s Carol Composing competition I am beginning to see the wood for the trees. A remarkable number of entries arrive (this year around 400) which are winnowed down, by some industrious BBC elves, to a shortlist of about 35. This is where I and my fellow-jurors come in. We spend a long morning silently reading the music on this long shortlist which we further reduce, like a rich Christmas sauce, to about twelve compositions. All the entrants have been asked to set the same poem (this year an intense seasonal invocation by Roger McGough) and the scores have the composers’ names removed – at this stage we know the them only by a number ascribed to each score. There can be an initial impression that all the music looks similar, but soon we are sharply on the lookout for pieces to discard, on the grounds of performing inconvenience mostly; but also monitoring ourselves for reactions of curiosity and interest.

The fun starts really in the afternoon when we adjourn to a BBC Maida Vale grand piano for a play and singthrough enjoyably led by David Hill. On the whole, the composers write in a completely tonal style, not infrequently running the risk that their music reminds us strongly of something else. Some minutes this year were spent debating whether one entry was just too close to the Vicar of Dibley theme tune – with exquisite illustrations from David on piano – deciding eventually that Howard Goodall’s lawyers might have a case if we chose it. It’s interesting that the one finalist carol (by Ann Burgess) which attempted something quite different – evoking for instance medieval music and Northumbrian pipes – was the eventual winning choice of listeners to BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme.

Remarkably, the next evening, and without the might of the BBC behind them, Dorking Choral Society under their conductor Hilary Campbell staged a comparable event. Their new carol competition attracted 87 entries from as far as Asia and Africa. This time, I and my fellow judge, the incomparable Stephen Jackson, were able to hear six shortlisted compositions live in concert before (with swift agreement) electing the winner, Those Things Three by Alison Willis with runner-up Alan Smith.

(Pictured – BBC carol finalists, BBC Singers, poet Roger McGough, conductor David Hill, announcer Ian Skelly – and whoever left that lovely little trumpet on their seat. Winner Ann Burgess is front row, fourth from right.)

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer