The descant reigns supreme at Christmas. The melody which soars above the rest of the hymn in the final verse transforms the collective praise between congregation and choir into an intense moment of triumph and joy. The descant amplifies the theatrical aspect of the celebration. The sense of drama is palpable. And if it’s a particularly good descant, it’s almost impossible not to sing along. If you’re a chap, you may even momentarily mourn the breaking of your own voice.
From the composer’s perspective, descants are the ultimate challenge. An eager crowd awaits the simple addition to an already favourite carol. Emotions demand to be satisfied Spirits want to be raised to the most respectable of climaxes.
It’s also an opportunity to indulge in the most intense and fundamental of compositonal techniques: four part harmony. Taking the already established melody and enhancing it. The composer needs to take the ‘congregation’ to a different place. He has to transport them. This is music in it’s purest sense: a journey embarked upon through melody and harmony. Ringing that melody dry to uncover the ultimate emotional reaction.
In writing a descant, the composer has to elevate both singer and listener. That’s the criteria. The payback is he leaves his own mark on the carol. None more so than David Willcocks’ descant for Oh Come All Ye Faithful. There is nothing more exhilerating than standing in a choir staring out at a congregation in front of you and hearing this descant ring out all around.
But there’s another aspect to Willcocks’ arrangement of Oh Come All Ye Faithful. The verse which follows afterwards. Just when you thought the upper-limit of your innermost desires had been reached, so the fourth verse kicks in with a crawling bassline and the promise of heart-stopping chord shortly before the final refrain.
But that’s me. That’s what turns my legs to jelly every single time I hear it at Christmas. What’s yours?