Ballads for Christmas

8 Christmas poems from around the world set to music for high voices and harp/piano.

17th December 1992
Birmingham Cathedral

More information on Ballads for Christmas

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An account by Andrew's wife and publisher, Cynthia Downes, posted on December 30th, 2020

In 1992, Andrew was asked by Valerie Pither, music teacher at Hillcrest School (formerly Bartley Green School), to compose a work for her superb choir, to sing alongside Britten's Ceremony of Carols in a Christmas concert in Birmingham Cathedral. Andrew chose to set different poetry from around the world and from different historical ages. The poems which he chose reflected his new compositional philosophy, inspired by World Music: The Huron Carol (Canadian); Pilgrims in Mexico; The Virgin's Cradle Hymn; The Mother's Song (Eskimo); Shepherd's Carol; Christmas 1924; The Holly Bough; New Year Bells.

Up until this point in my life's work as Andrew's publisher, I had been photocopying Andrew's original handwriting, which had by this time become extremely neat and legible. I realised, however, that Ballads for Christmas needed to be typeset and printed ready to provide multiple copies for the Christmas market. Anthony Bradbury had just set up his 'Keyboard Typesetting' business. He typeset the Ballads and I proofread them. 

Anthony also knew a brilliant artist in the Birmingham Festival Choral Society, which Anthony conducted. The artist created this design for the cover, illustrating all the lyrics in the Ballads, thus representing the different poems from all over the world.

The commission for these Ballads for Christmas came from the Midland Chamber Players, who shortly after this made Andrew their Leading Patron.

The Ballads were first performed on 17th December 1992 in Birmingham Cathedral by Hillcrest School Chamber Choir, directed by Valerie Pither, with Robert Johnston, harpist from the CBSO.

Preview letter and articles:

We were delighted with this compliment in the Birmingham Post next day:

'Ballads for Christmas is a highly effective work which, coupled with its directness and economy, should secure it a firm place in the Christmas youth choir repertory.'


I directed an instrumental group at Hagley Middle School at the time, and arranged the Shepherd's Carol for them. The music teacher, Heather Barnett, and I took the players to the Birmingham premiere. They really enjoyed their day out and loved the piece. They played the renamed Shepherd's Dance in the National Festival of Music for Youth really well shortly afterwards.

Cards and letters after the premiere:

Subsequent performances, either of individual Ballads or the whole work, were given by the same artists in their Birmingham Cathedral Christmas concerts: in 1993 (Huron Carol, Virgin's Cradle Hymn and Shepherd's Carol), 1995 (Virgin's Cradle Hymn) and 1996 (complete work).

In December 1993, Andrew and I made a magical Christmas trip to Christchurch Priory to hear the whole work performed by the Rilstone Singers with virtuoso harpist Susan Drake, conducted by Martin Schellenberg. The following year the same choir gave a repeat performance in St Peter's Church, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset, with CBSO harpist Robert Johnston 

The Chapel Choir of Royal Holloway, University of London, directed by Lionel Pike, performed Shepherd's Carol in December 1993 and then all of the Ballads in December 1994 in the Chapel of Royal Holloway. Andrew and I were able to attend this special 1994 performance in my Alma Mater college, by the choir of which I used to be a member. They recorded the Shepherd's Carol from the collection on their CD entitled ‘Whom do you seek, Shepherds?’ in 1995.

In 1995 I gave copies to the Music Teacher at our daughters' school, Haybridge High School, with the result that the school choir, with soloists Paula Downes and Catherine Pickford, performed Shepherd's Carol in St Saviour's Church, Hagley, in December of that year. With soloist Paula Downes, they performed The Virgin's Cradle Hymn in St Saviour's Church, Hagley, in December 1997.

During their teens our daughters Anna and Paula were invited by Margaret Pickford, founder and conductor of the prize-winning Halesowen Girls' Choir to join her ensemble. I gave Margaret a copy of Ballads for Christmas. Consequently, many performances were given by the Halesowen Girls’ Choir, and later by Margaret's Halas Chamber Choir, with pianists Keith Bradley and Heather Howell, in Halesowen Church and other Worcestershire churches, as well as the Birmingham Buddhist Centre.

The first London performance of the 
Shepherd's Carol was given by choristers at South Hampstead High School for Girls, in an exquisite performance with Paula Downes singing the solos and conducted by Diana Kieverstein, in December 2002.

Halesowen Girls' Choir performed the work again in 2003 as part of their reunion concert.

Photo taken for publicity. Front: Alexandra Rudge
Left to right: Cynthia Downes, Liz Rudge, Lucy Pickford, Katie (Pickford) Kestin, Margaret Pickford, Amy Bloodworth, Andrew Downes, Aisla Nicholls, Anna Downes, Chloe Marks.

The Halesowen Girls' Choir performed The Holly Bough and New Year Bells at the beautiful Christmas wedding of our daughter, Anna, to Michael J. Price, on December 27th 2003, in St John's Church, Hagley, Worcestershire. 

 This was followed by a performance of the whole work on December 4th 2004 in Hampstead Parish Church by the Millennium Scholars, with Tanya Houghton, harp, directed by Paula Downes.

The Cadon Chorus of Cornwall gave two performances in December 2005.

The first USA performance was given in Boston Massachusetts by the Millennium Scholars, founded and directed by Paula Downes, on 14th December 2005 at the Friends Meeting House, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paula Downes was interviewed by Cambridge, Massachusetts, local TV just before the performance.

In March 2013, a recording of the 8 Ballads for Christmas was made by Paula (multitrack voices) with Rita Schindler (harp), produced by Matthew O'Malley, at Birmingham Conservatoire.  In January 2016 Paula completed and launched on YouTube a series of animations and films to go with her recordings of each of the 8 Ballads:

Paula has also created educational resources to go with these animations.

Instrumental arrangements which I created of The Shepherd's Carol and The Holly Bough  have been performed on several occasions by musicians from Hagley, Worcestershire, directed by me. My arrangements of The Virgin's Cradle Hymn and The Mother's Song were first performed by Paula Downes, soprano soloist, with Hagley Community Orchestra, in St Saviour's Church, Hagley, Worcestershire in December 2015. Andrew himself played (keyboard) in these performances, which I again directed.

In December 2016, The Cantabrigians, founded and directed by Paula Downes, performed the whole work in the Chapel of Christ's College, Cambridge, in December 2016 and December 2017, and in St John's Church, Duxford in December 2018. The Cantabrigians have also given performances of individual movements: Christmas 1924 in the Chapel of Selwyn College, Cambridge, as part of their Remembrance Day concert in November 2017, and 3 movements: The Virgin's Cradle Hymn and The Mother's Song at "The Big Switch On" of the Christmas Lights in Cambridge Market Square (November 2017), in the Chapel of the Grange Wellington Hotel, London, as part of the Brandenburg Choral Festival of London (January 2018), at St Andrew's Street Baptist Church, Cambridge (December 2018); and at St Mary's Eaton Socon, St Neot's (December 2018).

Photo of the performance in Christ's Chapel, Cambridge, 2016:

Photos of The Big Switch On, 2017:

Excerpts from the 2017 performance of Ballads for Christmas, followed by Britten's Ceremony of Carols, alongside which Andrew's work was originally intended to be performed:

The Eskimo Song from this Brandenburg Choral Festival of London performance:

Photos from the Duxford performance, 2018:

The Mother's Song
 from the collection has several times been broadcast on Dutch Radio.

As part of Andrew Downes' 70th Birthday celebration yearthe Cambridgeshire Holiday 7+ Choir, directed by Paula, performed The Virgin's Cradle Hymn, which they entitled Cradle Song, in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, in January 2020.


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