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Issue 04 – Septuagesima 2021


David Willcocks

Recollecting the composer's


My children’s choir members call it simply “The Chord”: an unexpected change of harmony in the organ accompaniment in the last verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” corresponding to the line “Word of the Father.” In the language of music theorists, The Chord is a B half-diminished seventh, a close cousin of the languorous Tristan chord from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; the harmony is just a little bit more pungent than one would expect to encounter in a hymnbook, so playing it has a certain illicit thrill. There are special rituals that surround the playing of The Chord in most choirs: it is taken for granted that The Chord will be played each Christmas, but usually it’s only played once, at the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, carefully avoiding any repetition that would spoil its effect. Every organist worth his salt knows never to play The Chord before the twenty-fourth of December; if “O Come” is requested at a Christmas concert or sing-along earlier in the month, the last verse should be played using the chaste, simpler harmonies of the hymnal.

Sir David Willcocks would probably not have expected that his most widely recognized contribution to church music would be a half-diminished seventh chord, but his arrangement of Adeste fideles achieved almost universal popularity as soon as it was published, selling innumerable copies of Carol for Choirs for the Oxford University Press. Willcocks’s arrangement also includes an instantly memorable descant for the hymn’s third verse: the trebles give voice to the angelic host (“Sing, choirs of angels”) with an ecstatic chain of Glorias (“Glory to God in the highest”) that soar high above the familiar melody. For those in the know, the tune of the descant can be recognized as a quotation from another well-known carol, “Ding dong, merrily on high,” a clever way of uniting two different portrayals of angelic singing. The resulting arrangement fits so well that it’s hard to imagine the carol without it; no young singer who has sung “O come” in Willcocks’s arrangement is likely to want it sung any other way. Willcocks himself was characteristically self-deprecating about his work, explaining that he couldn’t find another descant for the hymn and “thought it would be nice” to have a new version for his choir’s Christmas carol service. That event, of course, was the famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge, where Willcocks was the newly appointed Director of Music in 1958.

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About the author

Aaron James

Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.