While All the World Made Merry


High Voice, piano–10′

A probing three-song cycle for high voice and piano about the darker side of Christmas on poems by British poet Charles Causley.

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While All the World Made Merry

Three Poems of Charles Causley

High voice, piano
Text: Charles Causley
1995, revised 2019
10 minutes duration

Program Note

When Dorothy Maddison requested a set of songs exploring the darker side of Christmas, I was drawn to the work of Charles Causley (1917-2003). Causley was born in Cornwall, England in 1917, and began writing poems while serving in the Royal Navy during World War II. These three poems juxtapose images of war and innocence, themes appearing often in Causley’s work, which is marked by a powerful simplicity of diction and rhythm in the ballad tradition. Causley’s Collected Poems 1951-1975 was published in 1975. More about Causley at the Causley Trust.

Over a ground bass, the speaker of the first poem discovers a weary Jesus, worn-out by what has been made of him, encountering a band of merciless children. The obsessive, sardonic second song depicts a commercial, seductive Herod in ascendance, the dryness of his character suggested by a simple muting of the piano strings. The lulling final song suggests that meaning must be found, not in pre-packaged form, but in personal experience. Causley’s war memories are ever-present, from the guns which close the first song to the persistent memory of lost comrades in the final elegy.

While All the World Made Merry was commissioned by the Schubert Club for Dorothy Maddison, who gave its premiere on December 23, 1995 in Saint Paul’s Landmark Center. Maddison and Andrew Balzi subsequently recorded the cycle.

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Texts (excerpts)

On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas

On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas
I saw King Jesus go
About the plain beyond my pane
Wearing his cap of snow.. . .

Innocent’s Song

Who’s that knocking on the window,
Who’s that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the kitchen floor:. . .

Sailor’s Carol

Lord, the snowful sky
In this pale December
Fingers my clear eye
Lest seeing, I remember. . .


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