The holiday season means different things to different people, but most of us associate the holidays with certain pieces of music. Whether that’s the Hallelujah chorus, Hänsel und Gretel, La Bohème, or Christmas carols, it’s been difficult this year to celebrate with music.
I decided to start looking around for some Christmas music by women. During Hannukah last week I was fortunate to perform Ella Milch Sheriff’s Shacharit in a livestreamed concert, and that made me think that there must be some Christian holiday music by women out there too.
Furore Verlag has several fantastic compilations of Christmas carols, which feature music by Amy Beach, Luise Greger, and Emilie Zumsteeg, among others. I thought about picking one of these pieces and performing it for you all, when I remembered that there’s a well-known carol choristers in the UK love, called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”.
Born in 1905 in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth Poston was a composer, pianist, and supposed British agent during WWII. She attended the Royal Academy of Music, starting in 1924, and while there, received several prestigious composition awards. Like Elizabeth Maconchy, another composer two years her younger, Poston studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and developed a strong professional relationship with Peter Warlock, both of these established composers encouraging her compositional career.
In 1930, Poston went abroad to collect folksongs and study art architecture. When she returned in 1939, Poston started working with the BBC, composing over 40 scores for radio and TV. During the war years, many speculate that she sent coded messages embedded in gramophone discs to underground groups in Europe, taking orders directly from Churchill.
After taking some time off to recuperate from her efforts during the war, Poston returned to the BBC and remained there for decades. Her pieces included collaborations with many famous authors, including CS Lewis, and she created the BBC’s Third Programme, which broadcast plays, operas and concerts in their entirety, without interruptions.
By the 1960s, Poston had turned to her attention toward song collections, focusing on collecting and curating six compilations, including the famous Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. Together with Vaughan Williams, she also edited The English Hymnal, creating the widely used Cambridge Hymnal that many choirs know and love today. She also gave a five-part talk about Warlock’s life and music for the BBC.
In the early 1970s, Poston was forced to take a step back after an aneurysm. After recovering, she continued to work on her song collections and compositions, and in fact suffered a stroke and passed away in 1987 while working on a collection of Christmas carols. Her legacy remained, with over 40 scores for radio and tv, many pieces for voice, both solo and choral, and an impressive number of academic writings and song collections.
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
One of Poston’s most well-known arrangements is the beautiful 6-part acapella version of the Christmas carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. I wanted to perform some Christmas music, and unfortunately it’s difficult to get a choir together in these strange times.
Instead, for some festive fun we figured we would record it ourselves! Here’s our first-ever attempt at a multi-track recording, featuring yours truly on Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, and Alto 2, and Dave singing tenor and bass. We hope you enjoy and have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday.