A Child’s Christmas Orchestral Music for Christmas Heritage

A Child’s Christmas: Orchestral Music for Christmas
rec. 1999-2023, various locations
Heritage HTGCD139 [66]

Pantomimes are associated with the Yuletide season. Neither Victor Hely-Hutchinson nor the liner notes give the listener a clue as to which ‘panto’ his Overture alludes to. It does not matter, really. All the elements of the genre are in place: from the joyful fairy-like dancing and the principal’s romance to the wicked stepmother or the villain. It lasts just over three minutes. There are definite nods to Gilbert and Sullivan. A rare treat indeed. 

I have not yet heard of Gordon Thornett, a Mancunian. He studied at Manchester University before developing his career as a teacher and music therapist. His A Child’s Christmas Suite is a delight. This child, sixty-something, enjoyed every moment. The piece reprises favourite carols and a few discoveries. We hear Jingle Bells in the opening pages, Little Jesus, sweetly sleepThe Birds CarolAway in a manger (British version!) and the Huron Indian Carol. The piece concludes with a rumbustious rendition of We wish you a merry Christmas. The scoring is outstanding, with much variety.

The compositional career of Adam Saunders has embraced the concert hall, silver screen and television. He has two pieces here. A Magical Kingdom is a fusion of both genres. It is difficult to pin down the location of this Kingdom. To me, it seems more Disneyland than “a wood near Athens or Prospero’s Island”. There are many good tunes with sweeping strings and harp arpeggios. Journey to Lapland is cinematic in mood, so the listener can imagine a visit to the homeland of Santa’s reindeer. Once again, the orchestration is sumptuous.

I was a bit disappointed with Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Christmas Party. It is a lot of fun, but somehow the music seems a little disjointed, lacking development. Conceived as a “showcase” for violin and orchestra, it explores well-known seasonal songs: Christmas is Coming, the goose is getting fatYorkshire WassailLittle Jesus, sweetly sleep, Jingle Bellsand O Tannenbaum. The big finish presents Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The scoring includes a solo piano and a champagne cork popping; I thought the latter was a fault on the CD. Hewitt Jones’s second work here, Overture: The Age of Optimism, surely is concerned only tangentially with Christmas, but it is a well-wrought piece, mostly happy, exuberant and upbeat. It was written at the conclusion of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I always enjoy virtual sleigh rides at Christmas time. Think of Leroy Anderson, Frederick Delius and Sergei Prokofiev’s Troika. Roy Moore’s Santa’s Sleigh Ride ticks all the boxes: lots of sweeping tunes, rushing through the snow, delivering the presents and the reindeers having fun. Remember their names? Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph.

Bryan Kelly has written a fair bit of seasonal music, including his Nativity Scenes and his Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley). He has also provided choirs with a few attractive carols. Sing a Song of Sixpence is not particularly related to Christmas, but it is fun and fairly bounces along. Like Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture, Kelly has woven several children’s songs into a formally satisfying fantasia.

More than half a century ago, Frederick Ashton choreographed The Tales of Beatrix Potter for a film release. John Lanchbery assembled the score from largely forgotten Victorian melodies by (amongst others) Arthur Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach and Michael Balfe. It results in an attractive sequence of waltzes, polkas, tarantellas and marches, and a cakewalk. The 90-minute ballet brought to life many of Potter’s favourite characters, including Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tittlemouse and Johnny Town-Mouse. Here, we hear four extracts: the Introduction, the Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, two episodes from The Picnic (with the country and the town mice) and the Finale. In the film, Ashton himself played the part of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. 

The last work is a cooperation between Philip Lane and Ian Nichols for the 1999 TV animation, The Adventures of Captain Pugwash. Readers of a certain age will recall the original series that ran in 1957-1966. The theme tune, which is heard in the opening pages of the score, is an early nineteenth-century Trumpet Hornpipe. Formerly, it was played on the accordion, here it is in an orchestral arrangement. The remainder of the Suite consists of various sea shanties, some of which are well known, others less so. This piece is a great finish to a remarkable cornucopia of delights.

The performances are always enthusiastic and nuanced, complimented by an excellent recording. Philip Lane’s liner notes give brief but sufficient details on each composer and the music in question. The cover illustration could have been a bit more evocative of the Season.

Altogether, this is a delightful release, full of splendid things. I guess that most if not all this repertoire will be new to the listener. Each piece is enjoyable, approachable, and full of interest. It will make an ideal stocking filler for all lovers of British Light Music.

John France

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Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947)
Overture to a Pantomime (1946)
Gordon Thornett (b. 1942)
A Child’s Christmas (2016)
Adam Saunders (b. 1968)
A Magical Kingdom (2003)
Thomas Hewitt Jones (b. 1984)
Christmas Party (2016)
Roy Moore (b. 1948)
Santa’s Sleigh Ride (2019)
Bryan Kelly (b. 1934)
Sing a Song of Sixpence (2020)
Adam Saunders
Journey to Lapland (2020)
John Lanchbery (1923-2003)
Tales of Beatrix Potter: excerpts (1971/1999)
Thomas Hewitt Jones
Overture: The Age of Optimism (2023)
Philip Lane (b. 1950), Ian Nicholls (b. 1960)
Suite: The Adventures of Captain Pugwash (1999)

Simon Hewitt Jones (violin)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Barry Wordsworth (Hely-Hutchinson, Moore, Kelly, Saunders Journey to Lapland, Lanchbery, Hewitt Jones Overture)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Gavin Sutherland (Thornett, Saunders A Magical Kingdom, Hewitt Jones Christmas Party)
City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra / Julian Bigg (Lane/Nichols)