The Christmas Suites

Creating The Christmas Suites With Jennaya Robison

Aug 15, 2023 | Composer Notes, The Team

I remember sitting in the Ikea parking lot in Mission, Kansas when I received a phone call from Steve Bock in December 2019. He told me that, “We want to create a new set of Christmas suites for choirs and orchestra in the tradition of The Many Moods of Christmas – would you be interested in this project? In fact, we would like you not only to premiere them, but we would like you to contribute as editor as well.” I knew my answer right away: Absolutely! I was honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett’s iconic works and humbled to think that we were embarking on a journey to create something similar for modern audiences. 

The Pandemic Strikes

In 2019 I was teaching and conducting choirs at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, at the time, and we have a strong tradition of Christmas festivals at the college. I am sure that the history of large scale, choral-orchestral productions such as Christmas at Luther was one of the appealing factors to having me participate in this venture. I told Steve, “There’s one thing – I’m accepting a job at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory next year. But I think that this project is so incredibly universal, it will work at a state institution as well as a faith-based college.” Little did I know that the world would shut down for nearly two years shortly after that conversation. It would be 18 months before we reconvened and began discussions concerning the Christmas suites. 

It’s Time To Get To Work On The Music

In the summer of 2022, we revisited the project. Steve Bock, Taylor Davis, Bradley Ellingboe, and I discussed Steve’s concept of Christmas Suites. Steve’s long-time dream was that the suites would have geographic connections: suites grouping together carols from cultures or countries. After more consideration, the team decided that a narrative approach may allow for more artistic freedom and reveal possibilities musically that might be limited with suites based in geographic regions.

Personally, I believe a thematic approach lets us connect cultures and countries continually. These connections allow us to demonstrate the universality of Christmas and the central themes it represents.

Jennaya Robison

Christmas Suites: The Work Begins

As Taylor and I discussed groups of carols, we began by discussing various thematic material – grouping carols by texts, text writers, or concepts. Programming thematically is something that I have been doing for the past decade. When we focus on how music can unite a theme, we can have music from very different historical periods, cultures, and languages sit alongside each other. In doing so, I believe it creates a narrative that allows the listener to hear music in a different way. When working with such familiar tunes and texts, hearing things in a different way is one of the most captivating elements of creating the Christmas Suites. I want listeners to walk away both humming the tune and thinking, “I never knew that line of text was part of that carol – it gives a whole new meaning to the work.”

What Are The Themes?

There are several, typical themes when one thinks about Christmas. It’s hard to think about the season and not see scenes from movies I watch with my family every year running through my mind. When looking at the various verses of carols, one may be surprised by the verses we do not often sing when we think about the carol.

Christmas Suite One “Journey Into Light”

For instance, examine the four carols included in the first suite:

  1. O Come, All Ye Faithful
  2. Silent Night
  3. Go tell it on the Mountain
  4. The First Noel

One may not realize that all four detail the Christmas narrative, and all four reference “light.”

  1. O Come, All Ye Faithful (….”God of God, light of light”)
  2. Silent Night (“…. Son of God, loves pure light”)
  3. Go tell it on the Mountain (“…..there shone a holy light”)
  4. The First Noel (“….then by the light of that same star….”)

These common threads were the building blocks of Suite One, “Journey into Light.”

Christmas Suite Two “Ring Out, Wild Bells”

Suite Two, “Ring Out, Wild Bells!” is certainly more overt in how the carols express the theme:

  1. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
  2. “Kling, Glöcken, Kling-aling-aling”
  3. “Carol of the Bells”
  4. “Ding, Dong, Merrily on High”

This suite, however, includes carols that are certainly recognizable but might not have the text recognition that other carols do. As Taylor, Brad, and I discussed these four carols, each one of us knew a phrase or two – but not the entire song. 

The Tradition of Christmas in Concert Performance & Worship Service

As I began to think about how to compile the first two Christmas suites, I thought about balancing Christmas and secular contexts. Christmas is so much part of our western culture that even the most sacred carols might be perceived as “culture” and not “church.” There were, however, some texts that we intentionally decided to omit due to the deeply sacred context of the lyrics. I want listeners and singers to appreciate the tradition of Christmas whether the context of the performance is a concert or a worship service. Texts were examined for gender-neutral language in as many occasions as possible as well. If there are occasions to adapt text to express a more inclusive message, I advocated for such. 

Easily Programmable

One of our initial conversations surrounding the suites was: Who are these suites for? Who are the singers? Who is the audience? We knew that we wanted the suites to be easily programable for both sacred and secular spaces. One interesting discussion involved how much “secular” or pop culture references can we inject and remain acceptable in the context of a worship service. Would a pastor balk at “Jingle Bells” in the middle of a suite? Would students at a public university be able to sing “Christ the Savior is born?” The first two suites certainly fit within the confines of the concert hall and the church service. There may even be short references to secular themes without the addition of text (listen closely to this in Suite Two: “Ring Out, Wild Bells!”) 

Difficulty Levels

Regarding the difficulty level of the suites – my primary goal is that the works are relatively easy to learn with moments of difficulty that require closer attention. In working through the first suite with the singers from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory, I was pleasantly surprised that there was enough familiar material to allow us to work through the music quickly, AND there was enough of a challenge that the singers had to pay attention! After a few reminders to “sing what you see,” we quickly became used to Taylor’s unique, harmonic language, including non-harmonic pitches used for color. The non-harmonic pitches are intentional and create a truly cinematic experience for the listener.

Budgetary Concerns

We also worked to make the suites a possibility for different sized organizations with a variety of budgetary concerns. The orchestration for all the suites requires high-level players – there is really no way around this aspect of the work. The singers’ parts are more accessible to allow for a wide variety of choruses to program the work. We have worked to make full orchestrations and chamber ensemble versions of each suite available so that the suites can be more easily programmed by ensembles of varying sizes and with various budgetary needs.

Years In The Making

The Christmas suites have been years in the making – even if we feel like we have only been working on them in earnest for a year. I believe these new works will make their mark on the genre of Christmas music that people love to sing, and audiences love to hear. On the weekend of the premiere, I had a member of the audience who heard the work in Topeka, Kansas. He drove to Kansas City (about an hour and a half drive) to hear the work again the next day at a matinee performance. He came up to me after the concert and told me he was going to pick up his daughter and bring her to our final performance later that night. There is truly no greater honor than to be included in a project that we believe will make a lasting impact on our community.