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The Manchester Carols – a major new work destined to become part of our Christmas tradition

2007 December 19
by Paul Vallely

Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. If so, it can be a pretty sloppy one. Elsewhere in these pages you will find my contribution to the Editor’s selection of tips on how to survive Christmas. Early seasonal deadlines meant I wrote part of it in the present tense about an event which had not yet happened but which has now, as you read this, already occurred

The event was the Manchester Carols, a new suite of songs by the composer Sasha Johnson Manning and poet Carol Ann Duffy. I described it as a fresh retelling of the Nativity with tunes in an attractive faux-medieval style. Ah, the perils of prognostication. Mea culpa, for, on the basis of hearing a few tracks from a demo recording, I have seriously undersold this to you. The Manchester Carols is a major new work of real substance which, last Friday’s premiere suggested, will become a firm favourite in the Christmas firmament.

Sasha Johnson Manning’s tunes are like a gift from heaven. The melodies range from hauntingly moving laments to catchy expressions of festive jollity, ranging through innocence, tenderness and foreboding to hope and reassurance. As melodies they stand as equals alongside the best of Warlock, Howells, Darke, Hadley and Rutter.

What gives them additional resonance is the approach of her lyricist. Carol Ann Duffy as a “benign atheist” has asked herself why the Christmas story holds enduring appeal for those of no faith. In part, of course, that may be sentimentality, especially for those like her who were brought in Christian homes. But it also is rooted in the deep humanity, and universality, of the Nativity narrative. Myth is one way we make sense of our human experience and the Christmas story is full of resonances – personal, political and even ecological – for our century as much, if not more, than any other.

Hers is a humanist vision. Her Gabriel is not an angel but a golden youth who calls Mary “by her human name”. He tells her:

Heaven on earth resides in you

 you bear the Christmas child.

This, of course, takes refuge in wilful anachronism but there is no problem with that for any Christian used to coping with three different simultaneous conceptions of time; in Advent we live in the past, the present and the future, with time as history, as rhythm, and as a window on eternity.

And if she avowedly strips out the supernatural she exercises the metaphorical imaginings of the folk tradition. Joseph receives news of Mary’s pregnancy from the trees he works with: the cherry offers wood for a cradle, the blackthorn thorns for a crowing and the elder wood for a cross. This exercise of the poetic imagination is, of course, allied to the religious sensibility. “Poetry and prayer are very similar,” she has said, “I write quite a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite”.

It is more than humanist. It is universal. Joseph is every man, Mary every woman, Jesus every child: “each child comes, a flame of light”. But then Christians knew that already.

Duffy tries to remove the divine from the story:

“Yes, it would be a miracle indeed,

if everyone who needs somewhere to sleep could find a bed. . .

if everyone who stumbles in the dark

could find a light

Yes, it would be a miracle tonight.”

But what she succeeds in doing is removing the divine from a superficial to a more profound level. God is not gone. He is bedded deep in human instinct. Which is, in part, what Incarnation is all about.


from The Church Times

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