The Christmas Suites

Creating The Christmas Suites With Taylor Davis

Aug 15, 2023 | Composer Notes, The Team

When Brad Ellingboe asked if I would be willing to hear Steve Bock’s creative pitch for this series of suites, I was immediately excited and riddled with anxiety! Excited for all the obvious reasons, anxious because we kept referring to the classic Many Moods of Christmas; it felt a bit like buying land next door to a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece with plans to build something new.

A few months later, Dr. Jennaya Robison and I put our heads together and came up with several possible carol collections, using common words and images as our parameters. Eventually settling on the first suite containing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and “The First Noel,” the second suite would have “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Kling, Glöckchen,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” Light was the value we held up in the first suite, bells were the guiding value in the second.

Christmas Suite One – Journey Into Light

When crafting the first suite, I wanted the choir, orchestra, and audience to feel like shimmering foil wrapping paper was being torn off a present. Immediately you can hear colors and textures swirling about, using sparkly pairings of instruments to bring things to life. And what you don’t necessarily realize as it’s happening is a countermelody establishing itself. I love the idea that a little theme would tag along on the musical journey, whether punctuating a carol or being woven through a carol in an unexpected way. A few bits from behind the scenes:

O Come, All Ye Faithful

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” had one too many verses in my first edit. Jennaya suggested I remove a verse, which meant figuring out how to keep certain ideas while shedding others. She was right! This carol works perfectly now. As complex as it might sound to the listener, the choral parts are quite reasonable as they hand off the melody between sections and divert from traditional harmonies.

Silent Night

“Silent Night” was written during COVID, long before this project existed. I wrote this arrangement to get my choir through Christmas of 2020. We had an outdoor light show and I churned out a bunch of carol arrangements that we recorded virtually from home. I’m glad it found a more permanent home here. It warmed my heart to open with the traditional German text and finish with an a cappella verse that is buoyed by a gentle violin solo.

Go Tell It On the Mountain

“Go Tell It On the Mountain” felt like it needed to sound determined, so after a reliable, if predictable introduction, it gets down to business. Hopefully the choir enjoys their somewhat conversational part, while the orchestra ramps up and up and up, and as it does, you might get the sense you’re in the middle of a rush hour scene from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The First Noel

“The First Noel” is such an elegant carol! I worked hard to let it be that on its own before adding sweeping, cinematic lines, which I hope will complement and not distract. It wraps up with big, bold chords doing unexpected things, and the end leans heavily into the countermelody we’ve heard for over twelve minutes. Big? How about bigger. If a musical confetti canon existed, this is me rolling it out onto the stage.

Christmas Suite Two – Ring Out, Wild Bells

As big and festive as the first suite began, the second suite enters plaintively, drawing the listener in. If the two suites are being programmed together, I wanted a complete mood change, making it impossible to compare them to one another. While you won’t find the throughline of a countermelody, there are plenty of creative nooks and crannies! It’s a fascinating process to create each carol arrangement and show them to your colleagues; I couldn’t have known what I wanted from each one until I started writing, so Brad and Jennaya were certainly flying blind. When I sent them my first edit in the agreed upon order – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Kling, Glöckchen” – there was concern the suite began and ended softly, with the apex rather lost in the middle. Ultimately, I had to switch the second and fourth carols, which gives us the order we have today. In order to do that, I had to rewrite the connective tissue between each carol, which was complex. The end result, though, is exactly what we needed, and I’m glad the creative process was shared by all! Here are a few bits from behind the scenes:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” begins with handbells being rung by choir members or a bell choir, freeing up the percussionists to add even more bells to the sound as things unfold. There are only a few notes and the rhythms are easy and repetitive, which could lend to having the ringers process through the audience or congregation. As the carol peaks, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” weaves its way through. As it ends the Westminster chime sounds, as though carolers were at the door.

Kling, Glöckchen

“Kling, Glöckchen” is so playful! I did my best to have fun with it. The percussionists make it sound like a windup toy is coming to life and the tuba gives us the first taste of the melody. But the toy wasn’t wound enough and the melody begins to slow, so the percussionists give the ratchet one last turn. From there, we are off and running. The carol ends as playfully as it began, with “Jingle Bells” being quoted in an almost cartoonish way.

Carol of the Bells

“Carol of the Bells” has so many layers. The melody is a Ukrainian chant and the original text tells the story of a swallow that flies into a home and brings New Year’s wishes for health and happiness. It’s not a Christmas carol at all! However, in the 1930’s, Peter Wilhousky – perhaps best known for his setting of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – took the tune and married it with his own text, giving us the Christmas carol we know today. A suite about bells wouldn’t be complete without this one in the mix, but the trick was going all in on the public domain music while avoiding the copyrighted words. I was mindful of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine as I wrote and sought to create a musical landscape that sounded mysterious or unsteady, yet by the end, sturdy and confident.

Ding Dong, Merrily On High

“Ding Dong, Merrily On High” should sound like a bottle of champagne opening! A lot of the color I used in the opening of the first suite is found here. If the listener thinks that’s as big as it gets, like in the movie Spinal Tap, this one goes to 11. The end drives and drives until the final cutoff.

I started working on these suites in the hottest days of summer, devoid of any Christmasy trappings. Each day, I lowered the shades on the windows and cocooned myself in air conditioning, hoping to trick my brain into feeling the spirit! The first two suites were an absolute delight to put together, and it is my sincere hope that orchestras and choirs from all over will enjoy them for years to come. In the meantime, temperatures outside are inching toward 90 degrees, eventually breaking 100, and that means it’s time to start writing Suite Three!