Christmas Review: Oxford Solo Songs

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Church gigs are a staple for classical singers. Historically, these opportunities have been primarily choral in nature; students and professionals alike perennially serve as “section leaders” in choirs across a variety of dominations. Solo opportunities, however, do come along—and when they do, singers are expected to offer selections that will “fit in” with the liturgy of a traditional choral service. Where, then, is a singer to turn for ideas once the well of standard oratorio fare has run dry?

Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas (Oxford University Press, 2021) offers an answer to this question by providing an anthology of 14 newly composed solo songs and arrangements by some of Britain’s most established composers, some of whom—like Alan Bullard, Bob Chilcott, Cecilia McDowell, and John Rutter—are already household names among sacred choral musicians. Representing a younger generation are Becky McGlade, Will Todd, Toby Young, and the accomplished Canadian composer Sarah Quartel. Unlike oratorio, the contents of the anthology are not geared toward specific voice types but rather published in high and low keys with the same selections for each volume, offering considerable flexibility for performers.

As the title indicates, all of the texts are suitable for the Christmas season. This distinguishing feature draws comparison between this newly published volume and Sing Solo Christmas (1987), still in print and also published by Oxford University Press. The former anthology, edited by John Carol Case (1923–2012), has long been a library staple, particularly among Episcopal church musicians. While Case looked backward for inspiration (composers represented there include Gustav Holst, Charles Villiers Stanford, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Peter Warlock), Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas focuses on contemporary voices. Although most of the composers represented are again British, the stylistic nature of this fresh round of selections is more likely to transcend to other mainline denominations than its predecessor. The mainstream success of Rutter’s and Chilcott’s choral music alone is testament to the broader appeal of the contents of this new volume.

Unlike Case’s anthology, Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas publishes no editorial remarks, so it is difficult to easily discern how specific selections were made or which were newly written for this anthology. I immediately recognized the respective melodies of Rutter’s “Candlelight Carol” and Chilcott’s “Mid-winter,” for example, as derivative of their choral anthems of the same names. This retooling of preexisting works does not necessarily disqualify their effectiveness as solos, but rather speaks to the utilitarian nature of the selections chosen for this volume.

I am somewhat surprised that all 14 of these selections are explicitly categorized as songs for voice and piano, as organists will surely be asked to adapt many of these selections. A parallel edition for organ accompaniment would have been welcome. However, unlike Case’s anthology, many of the selections in Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas were clearly written with the piano in mind. Whereas Bullard’s “Scots Nativity” will be easily adaptable to the hands (and feet) of a capable organist, others—such as Quartel’s “This Endris Night” or Todd’s “Softly”—are so idiomatically pianistic that such an arrangement would be considerably more cumbersome, if not impossible. This consideration, however, is perhaps the only drawback for a new anthology that has much to offer in the way of refreshing new content. 

To be clear, however, Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas does not replace its forerunner, but rather represents an opportunity to explore some new options in the coming season. In addition to being a worthy complement to Case’s volume, it also adds some additional arsenal to stand alongside Part I of Handel’s Messiah, offering some attractive alternatives for classical singers at Christmas time. Oxford Solo Songs: Christmas will be a welcome addition to any church soloist’s library. 

Matthew Hoch

Matthew Hoch is associate professor of voice and coordinator of voice studies at Auburn University. He is the author of three books, including A Dictionary for the Modern Singer and Voice Secrets (coauthored with Linda Lister). Hoch is the 2016 winner of the Van L. Lawrence Fellowship, awarded jointly by the Voice Foundation and NATS. He holds a BM from Ithaca College with a triple major in vocal performance, music education, and music theory; an MM from the Hartt School with a double major in vocal performance and music history; a DMA in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory; and a Certificate in Vocology from the National Center for Voice and Speech.