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A composer’s Christmas: Sarah Quartel

We caught up with composer Sarah Quartel to find out what she loves about Christmas, how the season inspires her composing, and how she spends her Christmas day.

What’s your favourite thing about the Christmas season?

I love the little things that pop up to signal the arrival of Christmas…the students’ excitement at school, my neighbours’ candy cane decorations, that pervasive sense of Christmas that lingers in my home and around my community. These familiar sights, sounds, and smells are the first signals of wonderful things to come: treasured family gatherings, brass accompanying carols in a candlelit church, lazy days making recipes you dare not try any other time of the year!

Is there anything about Christmas that particularly inspires your composing? 

I am inspired by the relationships people have with the Christmas music they find most meaningful. It’s like a favourite carol or particular descant is a member of the family that comes once a year and gets the prized spot at the dinner table. Knowing that these words and melodies have been sung with such joy over many Christmas seasons inspires me to create music that singers and listeners feel connected to.

What marks the beginning of Christmas for you? 

Decorating the house with my husband on 1 December. The Charlie Brown Christmas album goes on and we start to unpack the boxes of relics from the basement….

What’s your favourite Christmas film and why? 

My favourite Christmas film is The Muppet Christmas Carol. I know, I know. Folks would be appalled that I didn’t pick the Alastair Sim version, but there’s something about Sir Michael Caine singing and dancing that I can’t resist. Plus, I think the songs in that movie are great.

What’s your favourite Christmas carol and why? 

I don’t think I could pick just one. I am absolutely in love with Christmas carols. I find I crave different pieces in different settings. For example, in church I adore the Willcocks arrangement of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ That is the sound of my Christmas. But if I am singing with friends, I love older carols like ‘Gaudete’, ‘In dulci jubilo’, and ‘Angelus ad virginem.’

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

I actually haven’t written a lot of Christmas pieces which surprises me now that I think about it. For someone who is so in love with the season, I believe it’s time to expand that part of my catalogue! I have found it fascinating to see how different choirs approach ‘Snow Angel.’ I’ve heard it performed in all seasons in a variety of different settings but I once saw it used in a Christmas Eve pageant. They performed the movements of the work in companion with Nativity tableaux and Bible readings. The piece took on a whole new dimension when used in this way.

Sarah Quartel looking at a winter view

Are there any seasonal activities that you particularly enjoy doing? 

When I was a child the Quartel family had the tradition of taking a horse-drawn wagon ride through the snowy fields and woods near my uncle’s home out in rural Ontario. There was an outhouse along the way and every year one of the many aunts and uncles would be nominated to leave the warmth of the wagon and trudge through the knee-deep snow to visit said frigid outhouse. I think pretending to be grumpy about it was part of the requirement for participation.

What does a typical Christmas day look like for you? 

A typical Christmas day for me always includes family. We begin with a beautiful breakfast consisting of almond kringle, fruit salad, croissants, a lavish meat and cheese tray, as well as champagne and orange juice. The sound of Dad’s nearly 30 year-old ‘Carols from Clare’ CD plays in the background. We give gifts, then cozy up with a warm drink and one of Mum’s peppermint pinwheel cookies. The rest of the day is spent cooking, eating, and laughing.

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

One of the reasons music is so important to me at Christmas time is because it connects me to my father who passed away many years ago. At my close family gatherings it used to be Dad who was in charge of selecting the listening material which graced each meal. He was so careful and particular about his choices! As an organist who could play Bach like nobody’s business, you can imagine that his offerings were always superb. I’ve taken over the role of Christmas music programmer with much gusto and smile every time I select an album he would have appreciated.

What is the most memorable Christmas you have ever had? 

I do remember, quite vividly, the year I was away from home at Christmas. My husband and I were living in a climate that very rarely got snow. No snow?! At Christmas?! As a woman from an area of Ontario known as The Snow Belt, this was a tough one for me. Fortunately, we lived near the mountains on Vancouver Island and my darling husband offered to drive us up a treacherous highway so we could go “snow hunting.” We managed to locate a skiff of snow and I was ever so happy.

Featured image credit: Charlie Brown ice sculpture by mariamichelle. Public domain via Pixabay

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