Christmas is time to celebrate arranger’s art

Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

(Apologia: This has been by far the longest time I’ve gone without posting. It’s been an exceptionally busy past four weeks, and not in a particularly good way.)

Now that the Christmas music season is upon us, I wanted to say something, as occasionally I do, about the art of the arranger. I admire great arrangers for some of the same reasons I admire great editors: unsung heroes who don’t get the credit they deserve, but who are passionate enough about what they do to go ahead anyway and help get the message out.

Although, now that I think a little more about it, arranging often is less about editing than it is about repurposing, taking extant material and giving it a brand-new identity. Either way, arranging is one of the most interesting and least appreciated crafts in the whole musical workshop.

And when it comes to Christmas, one of the most important arrangers is Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 at the very end of this year. Almost every time I hear The First Nowell, for instance, in a church setting, it’s Willcocks’ arrangement, and on one of my favorite holiday recordings, Chanticleer’s Sing We Christmas, it’s the Willcocks arrangement of the old French carol Quelle est cette odeur agréable that lays me out every time. (Here’s a link to a 99-cent download of this performance.)

It should be noted at this point that Christmas carols are hard to arrange for the same reason that pop songs are often tougher than they appear: the actual musical material is quite limited, with the song simply consisting of several verses to the exact same tune and harmonies.

In Quelle est cette odeur, which has four verses, the first is a fully harmonized version of the song, the second is lower voices in unison under a nice descant figure. The third is a solo over “oohs” mostly, and the fourth is another full treatment, this one as close to ecstatic as you’ll ever hear; every time I hear that minor chord on the first syllable of eternelle, in the verse beginning Dieu tout-puissant, gloire eternelle (God all-powerful, eternal glory ….)  I’m inconsolable.

One of the reasons it works so well is that in the second and third verses Willcocks almost completely avoids the minor. Verse two’s chord structure is quite simple, with the barest of Les Adieux-style harmonies in the lower part. In verse three, the harmonies are more complex, but stay basically in the major. That allows him to unleash the minor, though with delicate touches, in verse four, and the effect is magnificent.

That’s the work of someone who knows what he’s doing, and it’s a joy to hear it every time. It’s also a measure of how important the art of the arranger is to our sense of this great season.

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