The Carmina Gadelica, known in Gaelic as Ortha nan Gaidheal, is a six-volume collection of orally-transmitted prayers, poems, blessings and other material, collected by the folklorist Alexander Carmichael in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the second half of the nineteenth century. Carmichael subsequently translated this material, and edited the first two volumes. The death dirge An Tuiream Bais was published in the third volume, edited by Alexander’s grandson, James Carmichael Watson. I have set the first, fourth, fifth and sixth verses in the original Gaelic language.
This work for unaccompanied mixed-voice choir alternates bold tonal chords with simple plainsong-like passages. The chordal writing often pits half the choir against the other half, in a type of canon effect. The plainsong-like passages are underpinned by simple repetitive drones. The text, set here in Latin, is part of the Tract for the Mass for Palm Sunday, and includes the well-known entreaty ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’.
While overseas in 1989 I came upon the book by Erik Routley A Panorama of Christian Hymnody – a sourcebook of hymns and other sacred texts. These four carols draw their texts from that book: the first two by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), the third by Eustace Condor (1820-1892), and the fourth by James Lowell (1819-1891). The fact that the poets are contemporaries is quite coincidental – these are texts which appealed and which appear to form a satisfactory cycle (although individual pieces may be performed separately).
Love Came Down at Christmas is a popular and widely set Christmas text, and originally appeared in Time Flies: A Reading Diary, while The Shepherds had an Angel comes from Rossetti’s Poetical Works. Both texts were originally intended as hymns for children. The Childhood of Christ was also a children’s hymn and is drawn from the Congregational Church Hymnal of 1867, whereas the Epiphany Carol appeared in the 1865 publication Songs of the Sanctuary.
Over a number of years I have written short Christmas pieces for groups directed by John Rosser – the Summer Singers, Quintessence, the Star Quartet and his fine chamber choir Viva Voce. These four pieces are dedicated to John and Kathryn Rosser as an appreciation for their interest in my music and willingness to perform (and record) it.
Scored for unaccompanied SSAATB voices this work is probably the most widely performed piece by David Hamilton. It has been recorded twice and performed on tour by visiting choirs including the choir of Christ’s College Cambridge (England) and the St. Olaf Choir from Minnesota (USA).