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Choral Christmas number one

Choirboys at King's College, Cambridge
Churches fill over Christmas with people eager to hear carols
Whether muffling up for carol singing, or visiting the churches and cathedrals around Britain, the time for Christmas carols is nearly upon us.

As Advent approaches, 50 of the county's leading choirmasters and composers of church music have come up with their choice of the nation's best carol.

The selection, put together by the BBC Music magazine, is marked for its focus on the more sombre side of Christmas, with In The Bleak Midwinter topping the list.

"We love that in our carols," says Oliver Condy, editor of the magazine.

"We like to feel sorry for ourselves and have a bit of heaviness about us, I think that is very British indeed."

The BBC Music Magazine conducted the survey of 50 top choirmasters and choral experts from across Britain. Do you agree with the top five on the list?


This Coventry Carol dates back to the 16th Century and is one of the darkest songs that are sung at Christmas.

The lyrics tell of a mother's fears for the fate of her child as she lulls him to sleep, set to the haunting arrangement of British composer Kenneth Leighton's 1956 music.


The beautiful melancholy of Bethlehem Down belies the less than squeaky-clean origin of the carol.

Composer and music critic Peter Warlock penned the song with journalist friend Bruce Blunt in order to subsidise their notoriously boozy lifestyle.

They entered the carol into the Daily Telegraph's annual carol writing contest in 1927, which they won and used the money for a night of revelry they described as "an immortal carouse" on Christmas Eve.


Composer Herbert Howells was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century British church music but was himself a non-believer.

He claimed to have got his inspiration for A Spotless Rose as he was watching trains on the Bristol-Gloucester line from his cottage window, although it is difficult to see how the flowing melody and subdued harmony is connected with shunting trains.


The ancient German tune has appeared in many versions, from Bach's Christmas organ prelude, to the hymn Good Christian Men Rejoice and even a chart hit for Mike Oldfield in 1975.

The version chosen as the second most popular carol is RL Pearsall's 1837 arrangement which mixes Latin and English lyrics and which features harmonies that gather in complexity through the piece.


Adapted from a poem written in 1872 by Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter is a sombre choice for the most popular carol. The carol touches on Christmas themes of wintry weather and the nativity scene itself, but finishes with a moment of self-reflection asking "what shall I give him, poor that I am?"

Gustav Holst wrote a popular version of the carol in 1909, but the more nuanced arrangement by Harold Darke from 1911, which begins with a solo voice rather than full choir, won the poll.

Is this the right choice for the five best carols or has the survey missed your favourite Christmas composition? Let us know using the form below.

No, I do not agree with the list, in fact I have never heard of 3, 4 and 5! I think Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Once in Royal David's City, O Come all ye faithful, and Hark the Herald Angels would rank higher if the question was put to ordinary mortals. I could add more!
rheath-coleman, Yeovil, England

How could the experts have got it so wrong? Christmas without 'Ding dong! merrily on high' is like a game of football without the ball. It's a carol with a really strong feel-good factor - just what we need this year!
Tim Rogers, Encore Publications, Kent

"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a good choice, but, choral virtues aside, I prefer the vision of Christmas portrayed in "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", with its optimistic final verse, pointing to peace on earth and goodwill to all.
Andrew, Oxford

Brilliant - true choral favourites from people who understand the liturgy of the season and the complexity of the music.

Can we have a Lent/Easter list too, please, when that comes round?
Lucy Jones, Northwich

What a lot of gloomy tunes to supposedly be the best Christmas carols!! Whatever happened to O Come all Ye Faithful???
Anna, London

Spotless Rose is in my opinion one of the most stunning carols ever. I first sung it aged 8 or 9 in the church choir I was a member of alongside my Grandfather. It's certainly my favourite carol! It's a shame it's seemingly not too well known though.
R Wilson, Gainsborough, Lincs

Oh, how I agree, especially with the tune by Darke. I have sung it many times, both as a choir member and from the congregation, and I don't think that there are words more significant for Christmas than these. A perfect choice
Barbara Spence, Bolton, England

Give me Hark The Herald & Come all Ye Faithful and take me back to my youth!
David Inglis, Kimberley, England

Nothing is lovlier than listening to infant children singing O Little Town of Bethlehem or Away in a Manger. Brings tears to my eyes everytime.
Lynn Jennings, Harrow, Middlesex

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