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Music: The Christmas Story by Gabriel Jackson (Choir of Merton College, Oxford)

19 January 2024

Fiona Hook on Gabriel Jackson’s new piece


GABRIEL JACKSON’s The Christmas Story follows on from his The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, also commissioned by Merton College, Oxford, for the college choir and its director, Benjamin Nicholas, nine years ago, and the new work received its first performance in St John’s, Smith Square, last month.

As the title suggests, it is a retelling of the Christmas narrative as given by Luke and Matthew, for choir and instrumentalists, inspired by the Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) of the 17th-century German composer Henrich Schütz. As in the Schütz, there is no Evangelist as narrator. Rather, the story is told as a series of separate numbers by the choir, and no named soloists, with the words of King Herod or Elizabeth sung by individual singers. Each of its four parts — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Candlemas — follows the same pattern, opening and closing with a Latin hymn, followed by a mosaic of biblical storytelling, instrumental sinfonias, Latin interpolations, and a carol sung by the female choristers accompanied by the organ only.

The diverse and varied texts were chosen by Canon Simon Jones, Merton College’s Chaplain, and the carols were set to specially commissioned texts by Merton authors. Thus, at Advent, we have Penny Boxall wondering about her coming Child; Epiphany brings a guest marvelling at the Cana wedding feast, the transformation of water into wine marked by a cascading saxophone and followed by a moment of meditative silence; at Christmas, Mary Clark’s beasts sing a lullaby; and, at Candlemas, Anna the prophetess sings of a future sprung to life.

This is music of texture and rhythm rather than melody. Apart from a nod to Schütz with three trombones, whose sonorous tones are a piquant contrast to the ultra-modern sax, Jackson’s instruments include flute, percussion, double bass, organ, and string quartet, here the excellent Kyan Quartet. Within these rather limited resources, he produces a very wide tonal palette, spiced with recurring wood-block quaver figures and semiquaver squiggles from the woodwind.

His instrumental lines are always at the service of the words, sympathetically and intelligently set. A cappella numbers contrast with sections for the choir accompanied by obbligato soloists, and moments when the ensemble all play together, leading up to the only time all the musicians are heard together, the final full-throated Transfiguration Office hymn, O nata Lux de lumine.

It is not easy music to sing, and it is a pity that this will probably limit future performances to professional ensembles. Merton’s choir, however, did it full justice, with the clear diction, open Oxbridge choir vowels, and precise intonation that is their hallmark. They were joined by the Merton College Girl Choristers, girls aged eight to 16 and drawn from schools in Oxford, who sang from the gallery and processed through the church at the end, still singing.

In 2020, the choir’s recording of Jackson’s previous work won in the BBC Music Magazine Awards’ best-choral-album category. The choir has recently recorded The Christmas Story, and it is to be hoped that this will be equally successful. It deserves to be.

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