Where better to find the spirit of Christmas than in a church associated with the Knights of Jerusalem since 1185. Just off Fleet Street, lays an oasis of choral music: Temple Church. Made popular by Dan Brown’s novels, Temple Church has a deep history and is home to many prominent musical figures, among them John Playford, the first publisher of Henry Purcell’s music in the 1660’s, Ernst Lough and his famous solo O for the Wings of a Dove, as well as Sir John Taverner and the premiere of his seven-hour vigil, The Veil of the Temple in 2003.

An institution synonymous with exemplary liturgical music, its choir is no exception. Consisting of 18 boy choristers and 12 professional choir men, the Temple Church Choir is an established musical tradition dedicated to performing new choral works. At a concert on 2 December 2010, the Temple Church Choir did not disappoint. Performing challenging works by Benjamin Britten (1913-76) and John Rutter (b. 1945), the youthful choir produced a breadth of sounds that resonated deeply within the church’s gothic walls.

© 2006 Temple Music Foundation
© 2006 Temple Music Foundation

Made up of eleven movements, diversity of sound is inherent in Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Employing several different key signatures, rhythmic tempos and collaborations between the choir and the harp, it was remarkable to hear the choir’s musicality and command over their overall sound. The most telling part of the performance was Britten’s eighth movement. Combining great leaps in the music with gradual crescendos, plus repeated trills on the harp, the choir produced a haunting sound that contrasted with the bright, often playful energy of the movements before. Distinct from the rest of the piece, it was incredible to hear such young boys have control over the quality, sound and personality of their voices.

The harp player, Sally Pryce, is not to be overlooked. Treated more as a partner than a mere accompaniment to the choir, the harp truly shone in its solo piece, Suite for Harp, Op. 83, also by Britten. Throughout this piece, Britten creates dramatic, musical tension that challenges the harp to produce a variety of sounds. From melodic themes and chromatic and harmonic scales, to simple rhythmic patterns as well as complex two/three time (one hand plays in duple meter while the other plays in triple meter), at times, the piece sounded more like one of Henry Cowell’s piano pieces than a suite for the harp. With so many different ideas occurring in one song, the harp produced a layering of sounds rather than one overarching theme. In this way, Suite for Harp, Op. 83 was more than a cacophony of sounds; it was an eloquent interlude that highlighted the depth of sound a single harp can produce.

After the harp’s solo performance, the choir returned with John Rutter’s Dancing Day. More of a traditional-sounding chorale, the choir produced a large, bold sound, which paired nicely with the individual brightness of the harp. Without candles or bells, which most carolers have in their performances, the simple play off of the harp with the choir, especially in the last waltz-like movement, produced a clear image of Christmas.

A perfect beginning to the holiday season, the youthful choir, eloquent harp player—and a fresh layer of snow on the streets—left us all feeling exuberant and warm with the spirit of Christmas.