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Can you have an atheist Christmas carol?

2007 December 17
by Paul Vallely

Can you have an atheist Christmas carol? Ask Carol Ann Duffy. The woman whose work has received every major poetry prize was brought up a Catholic but at 15 gave up belief in God. And yet she has just produced sixteen poems which have been turned into the most remarkable suite of new carols to be published in decades.

And we are not talking about the rising of the sun, running of the deer, holly and ivy as pagan male and female fertility symbols kinds of carols – the kind of wassaily language in which, said, that great historian of the carol, Elizabeth Poston, “the old rite can be dimly perceived”.

No, we are talking about a retelling of what is unmistakably the story of the Nativity of Christ – a fact which was underscored at the new cycle’s premiere on Friday by a linking narrative between the carols which Duffy had knocked out a couple of days before. But it is a Nativity intentionally stripped of the supernatural and focusing on the human.

“I think the story is wonderful,” says Duffy, who has in the past worked on poems remodelling fairy stories. “There’s a lot we can take from it on a human level even if we don’t take the divine element.” Thus Gabriel, who announces to Mary that she is with child, is not an angel. “I don’t believe in angels, much though I’d like to, so I’ve called Gabriel a golden youth”  – a reference to Renaissance art where the angel is frequently rendered as a beautiful blond boy – who calls Mary “by her human name” and tells her:

Heaven on earth resides in you

 you bear the Christmas child, and he

will live and die within your arms

sorrow and joy reside in you

you bear the Christmas child.

“I wanted to get a sense of the joy that any woman would have told that she’s having child. When we do have children were producing complicated human lives that will have joy and sorrow. We don’t just have babies that will have magical happy-ever-after lives. And this particular baby, Jesus, as we know, contains much sorrow.”

In the gospels, Joseph is also told of the baby by an angel but Duffy, who describes herself as a “benign atheist” thought one golden youth was enough. “So I decided that Joseph would receive his news, because he was a carpenter, from the trees he works with.” The cherry tree offers him wood for a cradle, the maple wood for toys, the blackthorn thorns for a crowing and the elder wood for a cross. “To bring the sorrow and darkness of Jesus’s future into the carol I’ve had the trees anticipate the Crucifixion.”

The suspension of disbelief is poetic rather than religious. “In a multi-faith society, of all the great religions and people who are agnostics and atheists I think that what both Sasha [the composer] and I wanted with our Manchester Carols was to write a suite that anyone could happily listen to.”

There is, therefore, plenty of sparkling snow and singing merrily in the verses, recalling the imagery of the traditional carols which were sung when Duffy was born on 23 December. “The night I was born the nurses stood at the end of the ward singing Christmas carols, my mother told me – a fairytale image I’ve had most of my life.”

But there is more to it than seasonal sentimentality. “Myth is very important for how we understand our human experience and the Christmas story is full of resonances for every century and particularly our own.” While writing Duffy was struck by the parallels between the story and the television news.

“Joseph and Mary were told to flee into Egypt. We see that all the time on our tvs – people leaving their countries because they’re oppressed or they’re going to be murdered.” They go to foreign lands to rely on the kindness of strangers, or suffer exploitation by them. The experience of returning home after the troubles is contemporary too, which is why she links  Bosnia, Iraq, New Orleans to Nazareth. “Wherever we call home, it’s the same for everyone.”

The language she uses is understated. Duffy uses simple words but in a complicated way. If everyone who needs somewhere to sleep could find a bed, that would be a miracle indeed. She underscores not just the humanity of the story but its universality. The child who redeems the world stands for every child. Each child comes, a flame of light.

Because Duffy is the wordsmith it is easy to draw on what she has said to explain this new enterprise. And yet the poet is not the star here. What makes the Manchester Carols so stunning is the music of Sasha Johnson Manning who has a real gift for melody. Her carols stand proudly in the tradition of Warlock, Howells, Darke, Hadley and Rutter.

Using just a small woodwind group with two recorders, a double string quartet, harp, bells and piano she coaxes a wide range of colour across the sixteen songs which are, by turns, tender and plangent, touching and joyful, happy and vigorous, and gloriously unsentimental.

The work is not without imperfections, most particularly in Duffy’s linking narrative which stitches resonant gospel phrases together with the occasional cliché. The actor James Quinn gave it a wry delivery but the text needs a good editor. Yet that is a minor complaint. The songs themselves are poignant and haunting or full of catchy jollity. A massed choir from Manchester schools brought the innocence and joy that only children can give to Christmas. But disciplined by professional voices – from the BBC Daily Service singers, and two outstanding soloists in the lyrical tenor Joshua Ellicott and the composer as soprano – it gave witness to the power of human connectivity.

It may not have been supernatural but it was magical. A work of real substance which will become a feature on the Christmas landscape. Mirabile dictu.


from The Independent

17 December 2007


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

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