Winter solstice carol

for solo flute, SATB
5 mins.

Programme notes

Scored for solo flute and choir, Winter Solstice Carol was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the 1998 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and is dedicated to Stephen Cleobury, Musical Director of King’s College, Cambridge. The English words are mine, and are intertwined with the plainchant Magnificat antiphon for the 2nd vespers of Christmas.

The intellectual rigour of Cambridge was probably quickened by the rigour of its winters, which in my time as an undergraduate had to be suffered to be believed. In the depths of a Cambridge winter it requires little imagination to appreciate the importance of the midwinter festival of Yule, on to which Christmas was grafted by the early missionaries to Britain. In those days – before central heating, anoraks, hot chocolate and thermal underwear – midwinter must have been seriously grim, and spring an improbable dream. At such times, it would have been easy to despair; hence the need for a festive reminder that seasonal rebirth was on its way.

For us, too, it is tempting to despair when we contemplate the unholy mess we have made of our fragile planet; but despair is too easy. Hope is harder, but it is all we have; and we must grasp it if we are to survive. Whoever and whatever Christ may have been, his birthday, like the spring rebirth of nature, is a powerful symbol of hope. In this carol I combined Christian and non-Christian symbols (as does Christmas itself) in an attempt to celebrate that hope and turn it into a song which brings light from darkness and warms, in a small way, the cockles of our hearts.

Giles Swayne 2009


Giles Swayne: Convocation
The National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Laudibus
Mike Brewer (conductor)
Michael Bonaventure (organ)
Stephen Wallace (counter-tenor)
Delphian: DCD34033
Magnificat I
Missa Tiburtina
The coming of Saskia Hawkins
Convocation of worms
The Tiglet
Winter solstice carol
Four Passiontide motets


Now, at the dead end of the year,
The nights are long, the days are cold:
We cry for help, but who will hear?
The sky is dumb: our gods are tired and old

Hodie Christus natus est:
Hodie Salvator apparuit

Our world spins round its dying star,
poisoned by folly, fear and greed;
And in our darkest hour of need
We dream sweet dreams of rescue from afar.

Hodie in terra canunt angeli
Laetantur archangeli . . .

But now the old year is reborn:
The withered tree springs new and green.
A baby’s laughter greets the dawn:
Today’s oldest miracle is seen.

Hodie exsultant justi . . .
Gloria in excelsis Deo,

Giles Swayne