In Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ painting from 1490, Nativity, at Night (National Gallery, London), the intimate scene from within the stable is for me dominated by the kindly benevolence on the faces of the Oxen and the Ass. In this tiny oil painting, their characters are so much more than the background bit-parts so often assigned to them – here they are centre stage, and with their eyes opened wide and their warm breath close, they become solicitous and sympathetic protectors. The tradition that so beguiled the Victorians of animals being empowered with the ability to speak on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve (supposedly the exact moment of Christ’s birth), along with Geertgen’s painting, forms the inspiration behind my carol, The Vigil.
In this instance, our bestial chorus includes cattle, birds and sheep, and in the stillness of that night, they keep a protective vigil out in the darkness that surrounds the stable, repeating the simple refrain: “Hush, now! Sleep, Child, sleep.” Under a “blanket of stars”, as represented by the opening keyboard motif, the natural elements begin to lend their sympathy, with the wind and clouds, the streams and flowers all looking on in gentle devotion. The carol is always mindful of the sleeping (or nearly sleeping) child, and never rising above a mezzo forte, the hushed rippling accompaniment underpins a personal and peaceful lullaby.