We’ve sung a lot of different pieces over the years for our choir Christmas programs at church; it’s been a joy to gain familiarity with some of the very fine composers of such music. One of the more interesting is Alfred Burt, introduced to me close to twenty years ago by our long-time director John Heaton.
Burt’s story is tragically brief. He grew up in Michigan, was a music major at Ann Arbor, and served in an Army band during WWII as a trumpeter. He continued performing and composing after being discharged, but died in early 1954 at the age of 33, of lung cancer.
He’s known to us now because of the music he provided for fifteen carols. Burt’s father, an Episcopal priest, began composing his own carols for inclusion in Christmas cards when Alfred was very young. Burt took over writing the music for his father’s words around the time he finished college. The elder Burt died in 1948, but Alfred continued the tradition, asking Wihla Hutson, the organist at his father’s church, to take over as lyricist.
The first recordings of the carols, originally meant only for family and friends, came soon after Alfred Burt’s death (twelve of them appeared on a late 1954 Columbia collection entitled The Christmas Mood). Over the following years, a few wound up being recorded by well-known artists; the one you’re most likely to hear these days is Nat King Cole’s version of “Caroling, Caroling.” Several years ago, we bought This Is Christmas, an a cappella 1963 recording of all fifteen carols by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I can’t say I listen to it every year (though I did play it this morning), but a few of these songs bring back very pleasant memories of Christmas choir performances past: “This Is Christmas,” “Some Children See Him,” The Star Carol,” Jesu Parvale,” and especially “We’ll Dress the House.” I’d love to sing them again sometime soon.
In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel did “The Star Carol,” a song Burt completed just days before he died.
And here’s a nice medley of “Caroling, Caroling” and “We’ll Dress the House,” by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists. I’ve always loved the chords toward the end of each verse in the latter.