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A composer’s Christmas: Malcolm Archer

We spoke with composer Malcolm Archer about the pleasure of driving his 1964 Austin Healey 3000 on crisp December days, the magic of the Christmas story, and spending Christmas in Chicago.

What’s your favourite thing about the Christmas season?

Being a church musician, I would have to say the choral singing and the services. It is also very gratifying to see the huge pleasure that choristers gain from singing Christmas music. There is something very direct and poignant about the Christmas settings, which goes right to heart of the gospel message about the birth of Christ.

Is there anything about Christmas that particularly inspires your composing?

The Christmas texts are very special and always an inspiration to composers, both the traditional ones and also discovering new ones. It is always nice to find inspiring words by a living author. Timothy Dudley-Smith is one of my favourite modern writers, and I have set a number of his texts over the years.

What marks the beginning of Christmas for you?

The beginning of the Christmas season starts for me on Advent Sunday, and the Advent Carol Service. Of course, Advent is not to be confused with Christmas, but there is a wonderful sense of longing and expectation which comes with Advent and that makes the arrival of Christmas all the more special.

It is so sad when the high streets, the media, and the world in general bring Christmas to us far too early. I like Advent to last as long as possible. That way, Christmas can still retain a special magic, and the first line of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ from King’s on Christmas Eve really is a moving moment.

Chicago christmas lights by Casey Allen. Public domain via Pexels.

What’s your favourite Christmas film and why?

I don’t watch many Christmas films as I am usually too busy, but I can remember watching The Polar Express with my children some years ago, and being amazed by the wonderful animation and the atmosphere it managed to create.

What’s your favourite Christmas carol and why?

It would be very hard to pick one. I have a fondness for Pearsall’s arrangement of ‘In dulci jubilo’, Darke’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, and John Rutter’s lovely ‘Candlelight Carol’. Bob Chilcott’s ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ comes pretty near the top of my list too.

Which one of your own Christmas works are you most proud of and why?

This is a difficult one.  I think there are three or four that I would mention: ‘A Child is born in Bethlehem’, because it was written when I was in my twenties, so I have fond memories of composing it. ‘Infant Holy’ and ’Jesus Christ the Apple tree’ because they were lovely texts to set, and my latest carol, ‘A Virgin most pure’; I am hopeful that choirs will really enjoy that.

Are there any seasonal activities that you particularly enjoy?

We always take the Winchester College Quiristers on tour just before Christmas. It is a great time to tour, especially for youngsters. Apart from that, driving my 1964 Austin Healey 3000 with the top down on crisp December days.

What does a typical Christmas day look like for you? 

When I was working in Cathedrals, it would be two services in the morning, followed by Christmas Lunch with the choir, then Christmas Day Evensong and then sleep! Since I work now at Winchester College, it means a rather more leisurely day, seeing the family and friends, and last year, tuning into ‘A Winchester Christmas’ recorded from Winchester College on Classic FM.

Why do you think music is so important to people at Christmas time?

Many people believe they have lost the faith they had in childhood, and the magic of Christmas has gone for them. Christmas music has the ability to re-awaken those beliefs and re-kindle that magic. The Christmas story is a truly remarkable one, and you have to be pretty hardhearted not to be moved by the extraordinary story of a baby boy whose arrival changed the world overnight.

What is the most memorable Christmas you have ever had?

Many have been memorable, but one of the most memorable was in 1995, when I was Acting Director of Music at St. Luke’s Church, Evanston in Chicago. I worked with some wonderful people at the church; the friendships made there have been lasting, and their Christmas services were also very special. Chicago looked amazing with all the Christmas lights everywhere; to enjoy Christmas in a city like Chicago is a very special experience, which I can thoroughly recommend!

Featured image credit: Christmas crib stall Bethlehem by Geralt. Public domain via Pixabay

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