Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Night Before Christmas: Philip Lane

For those readers and/or listeners who were brought up on Children’s Favourites (before it morphed into Junior Choice and then disappeared) will recall such works as Tubby the Tuba, Sparky’s Magic Piano and of course Peter and the Wolf. Philip Lane’s The Night Before Christmas falls nicely into this category and is surely destined to become a favourite of both adults and children.

The composer claims that he wrote this work “in just over a week in November 2005”. Certainly the quality of the music, and most especially the scoring, may well suggest that the idea, at any rate, had been floating around in his head a little longer. Apparently, he was moved to compose this work after seeing a Picture-book version of the poem in a friend’s ‘childhood’ bookcase. Lane felt that there was a lack of a “perennially performed” version of this well-loved poem for narrator and orchestra.
Of course, the poem itself is one of these pieces that is only half remembered – and one imagines not at all well-known to today’s more ‘sophisticated children.’ However everyone (I hope) will be aware of the names of the reindeer, which are given for perhaps the first time in the sixth verse:-
"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"


The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from St. Nicholas" was reputedly written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863). Although this poem is less popular with British audiences, it was, and still is, a tradition in the United States to read it on Christmas Eve. And to a large extent the imagery of this poem has defined the commercial and artistic image of Santa Claus and the means of delivering presents! Interestingly, it was this poem that finally associated St Nicolas, the patron saint of children, with sleighs, reindeers, chimneys and sacks of present.

Far removed from this childhood idyll Moore wrote a Hebrew Dictionary which he imagined would be his memorial- this was not to be. Apparently he was not the kind of person to self-promote. It is believed that a friend, a certain Miss H. Butler posted a copy of the poem to the New York Sentinel where it was first published on 23rd December 1823. For more than twenty years the poet remained anonymous. In 1844 the poem was finally included in a book of his poetry and was henceforth ever associated with his name.

Of course there is a school of thought that suggests Moore did not write this poem. However, as this is a musical ‘blog’ and not a literary one I shall accept the received wisdom.




Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Moore.


Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there,


The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,"
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Dominy Clements has given a succinct review of this work on MusicWeb International. He feels, correctly, that there is “Hollywood feel” to this music. I personally thought of Walt Disney and the Sorcerers Apprentice. Clements seems pleased that Lane did not indulge in “too many moments of programmatic padding.”
I found that the orchestration of this piece particularly refreshing. It is not scored for a huge band but seems to be just the perfect medium for supporting Stephen Fry’s brilliant and ultimately sympathetic reading of this poem. It is always a difficult balance to make – between supporting the narrator and overwhelming them. Of course, there are a number of moments when the orchestra provide colour to the words – orchestral onomatopoeia if one likes.

Lane explains that the music lasts just a little longer than the narrated poem – and his was a conscious choice to ensure that the music supported but did not dominate the text. It is this self-imposed restriction that has ensured the success of this work.

The music is available on NAXOS 8.570331

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