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WORKSHOP #14: "A Christmas Carol...for Next Year"

[This workshop began as a response to several members of the community who were interested in my then-upcoming annual Christmas Eve concert that I had mentioned in an earlier Rampage. My response grew into a short workshop and then kept on growing. Not surprisingly, I was unable to finish the workshop in time for this past Christmas season. Fortunately, the next Christmas is never more than twelve months away; hence, the workshop's name. Enjoy! --Dan]

Every Christmas Eve, the church where I play invites me to perform a half-hour concert of organ music. The only guidance given for the planning of the program is that it be comprised of Christmas carols, not Christmas songs. The first time I had to prepare such a program (1995), I wasn't exactly sure how to proceed. My previous experiences had all been repertoire-based, drawing on the Christmas music of "legitimate" composers (Bach, Handel, Messiaen, etc.).

For the first few annual concerts, I worked exclusively out of hymnals, rummaging through my collection to find the harmonizations I grew up with. I played two or three verses of each carol and my arrangements relied primarily on soloing out the melody, reducing and/or adding voices, varying registration; in other words, traditional hymn-arranging techniques.

Usually, I began my program with the quieter carols, building dynamically to a gangbusters medley of four or five carols strung together with modulating chords. The exhibits below are fragments that illustrate the method I used to construct the medley. Exhibit 1 shows the end of the first verse of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in F Major modulating into the second verse of the same carol played in G Major.

Exhibit 1: Modulating from F Major to G Major

Exhibit 2 shows the modulation between the end of the second verse of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in G Major and the first verse of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in A Major.

Exhibit 2: Modulating from G Major to A Major

Modulating offered a refreshing alternative to the hymn arranging techniques mentioned earlier. An exciting effect is produced as the keys of the carols climb. On the other hand, the effect can be overdone so, like everything else, it's best used in moderation.

I eventually moved away from the hymnal and started using arrangements from published collections (see Sheet Music links below). At first, I avoided the more "jazzy" arrangements but as I became more comfortable in my church position and started varying the program, looking for ways to keep it interesting for me and the audience, my musical offerings began to broaden stylistically.

I don't exactly remember but I think I joined the hymn harmonizations together in the early years because I felt like they were too short. However, when I started using the new arrangements, the length of the pieces ceased to be an issue and I also stopped worrying so much about transitioning the pieces. I'm even OK now with silence between the pieces. So, in recent years, I've been focusing less on key progressions and transitions to create program structure and relying more on internal organization.

What I mean by internal organization is that I, as the programmer, use an organizing idea that helps me plan the selection of pieces I'm going to play. Otherwise, I'd just be playing tunes at random. What I try to do is make a story with the carols. You can't really put the carols in story order because each one pretty much tells the Christmas story in its entirety, albeit from different angles, so I use the titles and the mood of each carol to piece together an interpretation of the Christmas story. What follows is a list of the rationales I used to justify the inclusion and placement of each carol in my program this past Christmas Eve.


Chime Intro
I played a single chime from the Echo division, located in the dome of the church, seven times, as a clock chimes the hour. In fact, the program did start at 7pm. It's dramatic, an attention-getter, and plus I just like the way it sounds.

O Come All Ye Faithful
The title says it all. This is an invitation--to listen, to participate, to witness the Christmas story unfold. So to set the mood, I started off playing the soprano voice only. I used an 8' chorus, again from the Echo in the dome, with the shutters closed. It was very muted and sounded far away. On the refrain I added a 4' flute so it was just a shade brighter but still with the shutters closed. I swelled up while modulating out of the first verse and really kicked in the second verse, nice thick harmonies all the way to a bombastic ending. I decided I could get really loud once in the beginning of the program, though still below the dynamic level at the end. Exhibit 3 is a graphic representation of the overall dynamic shape of the program.

Exhibit 3: Overall Dynamic Shape of the Program

O Little Town of Bethlehem
Every story needs a setting and, for me, this carol presents the setting for the Christmas story better than any other. I find it very easy to visualize the "little town" when this carol is played softly. I used a crescendo going into the second verse (mf).

Fanfare in F Major (Long)
I originally wrote this fanfare for my Christmas Eve concert several years ago and it still signifies in my mind the announcement of the Holy Birth and the trumpets of the angels. The brass is on. This piece, along with a version in Eb Major, is posted for free downloading on the Composition Free Exchange page:

In the Bleak Midwinter
After the birth, it's time to focus on the Babe and this carol is one of several that do. It also serves as setting the story but in a much more localized way than "O Little Town." It's more about the experience of that night in the Manger. In a movie, it would be an interior shot.

Silent Night
I often end with this one but this year I had something different in mind for the ending, as you'll see. So I used it at this point in the story reasoning that there was probably a lull between the birth and the arrival of the shepherds. Generally, there's some quiet time after a birth, certainly relative to what preceded.

Just as an aside, Liz Smith, in her December 23, 2003, gossip column stated that she received a Christmas card from "Phyllis Diller, who noted that the three wise men brought frankincense and myrrh, but three wise women would have asked directions, come in time to help with the birth, cleaned the stable and fixed a delicious casserole."

The First Noel
This is all about the shepherds and their experiences that night which leads conceptually into the next carol.

Angels We Have Heard on High
Celebration once the Word has gotten out, so to speak.

Gesu Bambino
The shepherds go to the Manger so once again we focus on the Babe. This carol uses "O Come All Ye Faithful" as a counterpoint to the second verse. The effect is really neat and nicely ties back to the opening of the program. Subtle, yes, but meaningful.

Joy to the World
How can I not end with this carol? The bigger, the better as a show closer. Speaks for itself.

Angels from the Realms of Glory
I usually end my Wednesday and Sunday preludes with an arrangement of the first hymn played on chimes and/or harp. Since my concert this year was leading into the Wednesday night service, I thought I would use this carol to create an echo effect of the Angel's song, to bring everyone back down and focus them after the bombastic "Joy to the World."

Helpful Hints
1. How Much Music to Program
The more I run through the program, the longer it gets. I guess this is due to relaxing into it. In any event, as a result of this effect, I never program the full amount of time that I'm scheduled to play or the program will end up being too long. Also, I allow for a bit of time between pieces, as well as starting 1-2 minutes past the start time in order to accommodate late arrivals. This past year I planned 25 minutes of music for a 30-minute program and it worked out just right.

2. Mark Music Copiously
As the program approaches and my stress level rises, I make sure I make plenty of notes on my music regarding last-minute adjustments. I try to resist the urge to say, "Oh, I'll remember that when I get there" because often I won't. I usually miss a change here or there during the program because I either didn't make a note while I was thinking about it or I didn't make it big enough or I didn't put it in a place where my eye would fall naturally while I was playing that section. Also, I mark my music fresh each year, erasing last year's marks as necessary.

3. Registration Outline
In addition to marking my music with the registration changes, I write down the order of my program in outline form and indicate next to each piece the number(s) of the memory piston(s) used for it. This helps ensure that I don't (but doesn't guarantee that I won't) inadvertently delete a registration that I think I'm not using. Last-minute changes to a registration plan have to be carefully executed. Also, because you can see at a glance what memory locations are being used and how, an outline facilitates the reuse of registrations, which can be essential for a large program played on an instrument with limited memory locations.

4. Full Documentation of Registration
Just like a recital, I document my registrations in the (unlikely but that's what insurance is for) event that one or more of my registrations is erased (not by me!). I do it on a separate sheet of paper so that I don't have to leaf through my music for the registrations--it's all in one place. Because I plan my registrations so I can use them in numerical order, it's tempting to document each subsequent registration with only those stops that have been added or subtracted since the previous registration. I resist the temptation. If I have to recreate a certain registration quickly, I don't want to have to go back to the beginning of the program and work my way through. And sometimes you just want to duplicate a registration in a different memory location for use later in the program and full documentation saves time.

Frame of Mind
It's important to be in the right frame of mind at Christmas and I have a couple of annual traditions that I keep so that I am. The first is that each year I try to read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It's not very long and it always gets to me. The other tradition is that I always watch "The Muppet Christmas Carol;" as Scrooge, Michael Caine can't be beat (see Related Books, DVDs and Videos links below).

And one final offering toward frame of mind is this humorous recipe for non-traditional Christmas Rum Cake.


1 or 2 quarts rum    baking powder
1c. butter    1tsp. Soda
1tsp. sugar    lemon juice
2 large eggs    brown sugar
1c. dried fruit    nuts

Before you start, sample the rum to check for quality. Good, isn't it? Now go ahead. Select a large mixing bowl, measuring cup, etc. Check the rum again. It must be just right. To be sure rum is of the highest quality, pour one level cup of rum into a glass and drink it as fast as you can. Repeat. With an electric mixer, beat 1 cup butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add 1 seaspoon of thugar and beat again. Meanwhile, make sure that the rum is of the finest quality-- try another cup. Open second quart, if necessary. Add 2 arge leggs, 2 cups fried druit and beat till high. If druit gets stuck in beaters, just pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the rum again, checking for tonscisticity. Next sift 3 cups of pepper or salt (it really doesn't matter which). Sample the rum again. Sift 1/2 pint lemon juice. Fold in chopped butter and strained nuts. Add one babblespoon of brown thugar, or whatever color you can find. Wix mell. Grease oven and turn cake pan to 350 gredees. Now pour whole mess into the coven and ake. Check the rum again, and bo to bed.

That's enough Christmas!

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Sheet Music
Most of the collections I picked up over the years on sale, especially right after Christmas. Some are still being published but I've also included the ones that are out of print in case they turn up at a used music sale or in a clearance bin at a music store.
Christmas Book The By Mansfield. Organ. Level: 3 staff. Sacred Organ. Published by Lorenz Publishing Company. (KK468)
See more info...
Organ Hymns for Praise and Worship - Volume 3 Organ. Arranged by John Innes. Fred Bock Publications. Size 9x12 inches. 24 pages. Published by Fred Bock Music Company. (8738377)
See more info...
Oxford Book Of Christmas Organ Music By Gower. For Organ Collection. Book. Published by Oxford University Press. (3751240)
See more info...
Hard to Find
Out of Print
(Check out Store Clearance bins or Used Music Sales)
Pedal-less Advent/Christmas Collection, compiled by James Manfield, Lorenz

Gloria! Arr. By Owen Griffin (also has Creative Introductions for ten carols), Word Music or Hal Leonard

The Organ Music of Fred Bock, Volume 2, Ten Christmas Melodies, Fred Bock Music Company

Sacred Christmas Music, arr. By Chester Nordman, Charles Hansen Distributor

Related Books, DVDs and Videos
cover A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Merry Christmas, everyone! "Bah!" said Scrooge. "Humbug!" With those famous words unfolds a tale that renews the joy and caring that are Christmas. Whether we read it aloud with our family and friends or open the pages on a chill winter evening to savor the story in solitude, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a very special holiday experience. It is the one book that every year will warm our hearts with favorite memories of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future -- and will remind us with laughter and tears that the true Christmas spirit comes from giving with love. With a heartwarming account of Dickens' first reading of the Carol, and a biographical sketch.
Click here for ALL Book versions of "A Christmas Carol" at

cover The Muppet Christmas Carol (DVD)
Brian Henson directs his late father's creations in the Charles Dickens classic, the best known (and most oft-filmed) Christmas story of all time. Michael Caine plays the old miser Scrooge with Kermit as his long-suffering but ever-hopeful employee Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Cratchit's wife, and a host of Muppets (including the Great Gonzo as an unlikely Charles Dickens) taking other primary roles in this bright, playful adaptation of the somber tale. Or at least it starts brightly enough--the anarchic humor soon settles into mirthful memories and a sense of melancholy as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future take Scrooge on a journey of his lonely, wasted life. Michael Caine makes a wonderful Scrooge, delightfully rediscovering the meaning of life as fantastic creations from Henson's Creature Shop (developed specially for this film) take the reins as the three ghosts. While the odd mix of offbeat humor and somber drama undercuts the power of Dickens's drama, this kid-friendly retelling makes an excellent family drama that adults and children alike can enjoy.
Click here for ALL DVD versions of "A Christmas Carol" at

cover A Christmas Carol (50th Anniversary Edition) (1951) (VHS)
This is the desert-island choice of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, with a magnificent, full-bodied portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by Alastair Sim that leaves everyone else in the dust. Lean and direct, this film's version of the story wastes no time trying to impress viewers with the magical nature of the spirits' visitations. Director Brian Desmond Hurst keeps the focus on Scrooge's life story, beautifully simplifying and underscoring the theme of lost women with a haunting musical refrain from the folk song "Barbara Allen." Sim's commitment to the role is at times astonishing; his Scrooge's Christmas-morning ecstasy is a marvel of giddy technique. Watch for Patrick Macnee (Steed in The Avengers) as the young Jacob Marley--the actor made his screen debut in this 1951 production.
Click here for ALL Video versions of "A Christmas Carol" at

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