Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

by 5:4

A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

To believers and non-believers alike, this kind of engagement with the real world makes for a powerful parallel with the traditional Christmas narrative. Refugees have little if any sense of security, and Causton’s music mirrors this, initially establishing a verse-refrain environment that, particularly in this service, feels entirely familiar and comfortable. The opening verses are presented in a brusque and rather officious way, quickly with lots of heavily enunciated consonants; they’re answered by a slow, even protracted, elegiac refrain, lingering over its words in a way that signifies not merely an inherent sense of love and longing but, more, heartfelt imploring. The second of these verses, which is essentially repeated, raises more of a commotion, and following its refrain Causton ruptures the structure from within, verses three and four running into each other in an increasingly disoriented and confused hubbub of adult voices, out of which arise a series of high, falling cries from some of the children; somewhere between singing and wailing, it’s unexpected and thoroughly startling, turning the hitherto conventional attitude the carol had ostensibly adopted on its head, and in the process throwing everything into question. The chaos comes to a halt at the words, “you won’t hear our voices | once we’re in the dark”, before attaining some fragile stability—and hope—in its answering lines “but here is our fire | this child is our spark”.

In the wake of such musical havoc as this, the carol’s closing return to its now familar refrain, fittingly, feels uncomfortable and inadequate. The sentiments in George Szirtes’ words are not so much a prayer as an urgent, desperate plea to everyone both to take seriously and then actually do something to resolve the horrendous crisis that—despite its conspicuous absence from our news at present—continues to face refugees. Children—their importance and their particular plight—are the key to Causton’s powerful and deeply troubling setting, and no amount of sage chin-stroking or sympathetic nodding in response will do anything to prevent their suffering and their deaths. In The Flight, Richard Causton and George Szirtes have not only given us a Christmas carol that one can take seriously, but which one can only take seriously.


The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked
May those who travel light
Find shelter on the flight
May Bethlehem
Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Great piece!!
Another piece that received excellent reviews this year was Judith Bingham’s Ghostly Grace composed for King Richard III’s re-interment.Can you post a recording of the piece with a review?

Click here to respond and leave a commentx