Capturing the Spirit of the Season

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As autumn nears its end, the thoughts of musicians everywhere are no doubt turning to the coming season, likely to be a musically rich one for many.

Piano players and teachers are always on the look out for fresh material, and I’m happy to remind you of two excellent collections co-written by composers Alison Mathews and Barbara Arens, Capturing the Joy of Winter, and Capturing the Spirit of Christmas.

Both were positively reviewed here when they appeared in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and it’s high time to consolidate my thoughts into a single review. So here goes…

Capturing the Spirit of Christmas

The first of these two collaborative collections to be published by Editions Musica Ferrum, Capturing the Spirit of Christmas features 12 Carols arranged for piano, six by Barbara Arens and six by Alison Mathews.

As with all Editions Musica Ferrum publications, the book has a high quality presentation with a traditional vibe. I’m a fan of this approach, and rather feel the score is a work of art in its own right!

Capturing the Spirit of Christmas review

But what of the content? The carols are, by arranger:

Barbara Arens:

  • From Heaven on High the Angels Sing
  • We Three Kings
  • Maria walks through Woods of Thorns
  • Deck the Halls
  • Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
  • Rend the Heavens

Alison Mathews:

  • Gabriel’s Message
  • Sussex Carol
  • Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
  • Coventry Carol
  • O come, O come, Emmanuel
  • I Saw Three Ships & In Dulci Jubilo

It is immediately clear from this list that the arrangers have selected carols from the more classical and traditional end of the spectrum; there are few tunes here that younger players will recognise.

It’s also a charming touch that both arrangers have selected carols heavily from within their own cultural tradition, with German carols dominant in Barbara’s selection and Olde English ones in Alison’s.

I was really pleased to see that the book begins with a detailed and informative introduction section, “Notes on the Carols”, which brings together the words of each carol and some impressive research into the sources of each.

Regardless of the selections and provenance of these tunes, though, the “Spirit of Christmas” has most certainly been “Captured” throughout this collection, not least because of the tasteful and stylish arrangements, which brilliantly speak to the mood of the Season.

The Arrangements

It is certainly interesting (and to the collection’s benefit) to have arrangements by two different composers presented side by side. Both Barbara and Alison have done a stellar job of taking these old tunes and presenting them with fresh voices, imbued with a contemporary musical language throughout.

Barbara’s writing, familiar to those who have explored her other collections, is here again characterised by the use of a wide dynamic range, unexpected key and time signature changes, and in some of the pieces, pulsating rhythms. A contrast is found in her arrangement of We Three Kings, which is spartan but still highly effective. Unusually for Barbara, suggested fingerings are kept to a minimum.

Alison, by contrast, writes with a more deliberately lyrical flow. In almost all her arrangements here, the left hand is principally employed to play broken-chord figurations, and while Barbara typically constrains movement and chord voicing within the octave, Alison prefers to spread across a tenth; these figurations flesh out the harmony very effectively, but rather benefit from larger hands, a flexible wrist and good legato pedalling. These arrangements are spacious, “Romantic”, and full of seasonal sparkle.

Overall in terms of level, I would say that all the pieces here are manageable for intermediate players of around ABRSM Grade 4-5 level.

This beautifully compiled video featuring the two composers playing through their works will I hope satisfy your appetite for exploring to the pieces in full:

Those who enjoy the best traditions of Christmas music, and particularly those who have a good knowledge of the carol repertoire, will be immediately thrilled by this collection of lovingly crafted solo piano arrangements.

And for players who are ready to explore fresh music which effectively represents both the past and the present of Seasonal music-making, delving into Capturing the Spirit of Christmas will be an enchanting and picturesque journey.

Capturing the Joy of Winter

Capturing the Joy of Winter is a more-than-worthy sequel to the first book, offering an equally enjoyable selections of pieces, but perhaps aimed at an even broader audience.

Capturing the Joy of Winter review

Here, Alison and Barbara collaborate on a collection with a special seasonal appeal which goes beyond the standard Christmas fare, and makes the book an ideal complement to their previous one. And as with that publication, the standard of the pieces is around UK Grades 4-6 (Late Intermediate).

Commenting on their ongoing collaboration, Barbara and Alison say:

“The main impulse was to create a contrasting book to provide repertoire not related to a religious festival, but simply to celebrate the winter season. We decided to include not only arrangements, but a selection of original pieces too. We discovered some wonderful international folk music imbued with the winter spirit.”

The 16 pieces making up this second collection include several original tunes as well as a few arrangements of traditional folk melodies:

  • Grisial Ground (Alison Mathews, AM)
  • White on White (Barbara Arens, BA)
  • Plum Blossom (AM)
  • Kulning och Vintersolstånddans (BA)
  • The Winter Wood (AM)
  • Under the Mistletoe (BA)
  • Tracery on a Frosted Window (AM)
  • Eggnog & Hot Mulled Wine (BA)
  • Candlelit Evening (AM)
  • Northern Lights (BA)
  • Green Grow’th the Holly (AM)
  • Det Blir en Julhelg Glad (BA)
  • A Snowy Owl Takes Flight (AM)
  • Frosty Morning (BA)
  • This Immense Land (AM)
  • Fire in the Hearth, Snow on the Hills (BA)

Ironically, although the composers have avoided direct reference to Christmas itself (at least the religious festival), this collection seems to me to have even more seasonal charm than its predecessor.

The pieces are wonderfully evocative, and it is again a delight to see how the two quite distinct voices of these composers complement each other so well, rounding out the collection.

You can get more of a taste from this promotional video:

Is it too much to hope for Spring, Summer and Autumn books to follow?

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

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