Friday, 19 December 2014

William Walton: Christmas Carol ‘What Cheer!’

Many choristers will have been introduced to William Walton’s ‘What Cheer!’ through the first volume of Carols for Choirs edited by Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks. This book (and its successors) was to revolutionise the singing of Christmas Carols in ‘choirs and places where they sing’.
Walton wrote four carols over a 45 year period. The first, in 1931, was ‘Make we Joy Now in this Feast’ which was commissioned by the Manchester-based newspaper the Daily Despatch.  It was published there on Christmas Eve. The second carol was ‘What Cheer!’ In 1970 ‘All this Time’ appeared in Carols for Choirs 2 to be followed in 1977 by ‘King Herod and the Cock’ in the succeeding volume.
William Walton was commissioned to write his idiomatic Christmas carol ‘What Cheer!’ in November 1960 as a contribution to the first volume of Carols for Choirs.  It was composed shortly after the first performance of his Second Symphony in Edinburgh on 2 September 1960. Other works dating from 1961 the revision of the Viola Concerto (performed January 1962) and the impressive but underrated ‘Gloria’ for the Huddersfield Choral Society which was first heard on 24 November.
It is not known where or when the premiere of Walton’s carol ‘What Cheer!’ was performed, however Stewart R. Craggs has noted 26 April 1961 as the date of completion.
It was published separately by Oxford University Press in 1962.

The words of the carol are taken from the London grocer, Richard Hill’s (born before 1490) Commonplace Book with some alterations to the text. The holograph of Hill’s book is in the possession of Baliol College, Oxford (MS 534) and has been digitalised.

What cheer? Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year!

Lift up your hearts and be glad
In Christ’s birth, the angel bade,
Say each to other, if any be sad:
What cheer?

Now the King of heaven his birth hath take,
Joy and mirth we ought to make;
Say each to other, for his sake:
What cheer?

I tell you all with heart so free:
Right welcome, welcome, ye be to me;
Be glad and merry, for charity!

What cheer? Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year!
  
The carol is for unaccompanied four-part choir (SATB). Carols for Choirs does not include a ‘practice accompaniment’ so it is essential for singers to make the correct intonation from an early stage of preparation.
The carol is composed in a bouncy 3/8 metre throughout: the music is signed ‘allegretto’ but this piece could be sung ‘jubiloso’?
‘What Cheer!’ is infused with Walton’s ‘jazz-flavoured rhythm’ without descending to a Rutter-esque ‘pop’ sound. There is a dance music mood to this piece that, in spite of its brevity leaves an impression of profuse rhythmic vitality.  The carol is set in A major, however, allowing for ‘piquant’ dissonances there are relatively few accidentals. There is a modulation into ‘C major’ in the final exclamations of ‘Be merry and glad’, nevertheless the work ends on a solid A major tonic chord. The harmony is not overly dissonant. Considerable use is made of parallel ‘thirds’ between male and female voices.  Much of the striking effect of this carol is made by contrasting loud and quiet ‘What Cheer[s]! between voices.
Frank Howes in his study of Walton’s music (1974) says precious little about this carol. He simply notes that the melody is ‘harmonized by mild progressive dissonance that would not have been written by Stanford nor yet by a serialist composer.’
There are currently 14 versions of ‘What Cheer!’ listed in the Arkiv CD catalogue. One suspects that there be will a few more that have been deleted or are available as digital downloads. Well-known choirs that have recorded this work include the Bach Choir, Queen’s College Cambridge, Polyphony and Christ Church Cathedral Choir. The earliest commercial recording was ‘Sir Cristemas’ by the Elizabethan Singers with Louis Halsey in 1965 on ARGO RG446 (mono) and ZRG 5446 (stereo). A cassette was issued in April 1989 (MCFC164). It has been released on CD and is available in limited supply on Amazon. 

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