In His Own Words
Ben Rowarth is the composer of this year’s Huddersfield Choral Society’s carol commission. Before we perform the world première of Ben’s take on “ O Little Town of Bethlehem” in the Town Hall on December 8th, we thought you would like to hear what he has to say about his brand new Christmas composition.
- You have received many commissions to write for choirs and orchestras. You are used to the blank page. How did you start to marshal your ideas for the HCS commission?
I always start by giving myself as many options as possible. For this piece, this meant looking through Christmas texts and existing Christmas carols that I liked, sitting down at the piano and coming up with five or six musical ideas that I thought I could turn into a new piece. I then took all of these ideas and roughly sketched out what they might look like if I developed them further into something a bit more substantial. After that I was down to what I thought were the two best ideas and I chose this one as ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is actually my favourite Christmas hymn and one that I’ve been wanting to use in an arrangement for years – now was the opportunity!
- Your composition has a very familiar title and fuses Tennyson’s poetry with well-known carols. Although the material is traditional, the message feels relevant to today. How did you choose the text?
So I mentioned I’ve been wanting to use ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ for a while, actually the same is true for this Tennyson poem (‘Ring out, wild bells’ or ‘In Memoriam’). Every Christmas I’m amazed that there aren’t more settings of it. It seems like such a pertinent text, as well as a seasonal one: ringing out all the bad things about the old year and ringing in a better world; calling for an end to war and suffering, and instead heralding peace.
- The 2nd altos and 2nd basses get to sing the tune – a rare treat. You are a singer yourself; how does this affect the way you compose for a choir? Tell us about your composition process.
Well certainly as a bass I’ve sung through my fair share of slightly dull vocal lines! I think what I aim to do when writing for any ensemble, vocal or otherwise, is create the overall effect that I’m after (the harmony and the texture) by combining musical lines that try to be genuinely interesting in and of themselves. Maybe it’s a love of 16th century polyphony, maybe it’s the singer in me always looking for an interesting melody. Although I definitely don’t always manage it, that’s normally the aim!
4. What challenges did you meet along the way?
My main challenge with this piece was trying not to overcomplicate things with too many ideas. With a number of Christmas themes combined into one carol, I wanted to make sure that the setting of the Tennyson still rang clear as the overarching message.
- What musical techniques do you employ to evoke specific emotions or thought processes in your performers and/or audience?
Well the big one at Christmas is nostalgia. One of the main reasons why people love Christmas music (of all types) so much is because of the happy memories attached to it. So one obvious technique employed in this piece was simply the inclusion of themes, melodies and words of other Christmas carols that people know and love, and which spark those memories. I also think that at Christmas, choral music can capture so well a quiet excitement and anticipation, of lots of people crammed into a church on Christmas Eve waiting to begin celebrations. So although the piece is at times loud and celebratory, I’ve tried to always bring things back to that sense of quiet magic.
Ben is keen that we should enjoy singing and listening to this piece as much as he enjoyed writing it. He need have no worries on that score – we love it!
Image credit: Ben McKee