Carrying on a Family Tradition of Carol Writing

As a young girl, Abbie Betinis noticed that singing “Caroling, Caroling” during the holidays always brought tears to her grandpa’s eyes. Later she would learn that the famous carol was one of many composed by her great uncle Alfred Burt, who was carrying on a family tradition of carol writing begun by his father, the Rev. Bates Burt. In 2001, Betinis, by then a composer herself, decided to pick up the family carol writing tradition.

How wonderful to be born into such a rich family tradition. What motivated you to pick up the mantle and compose your own carols?

Listen to the Burt Family Carols
Enjoy a special SoundCloud playlist put together by Abbie Betinis.
Listen to the 2013 premiere of "Carol of the Stranger" on Minnesota Public Radio.

I come from a family that loves to sing. On Christmas Eve, we sing carols around the crèche, and each person requests a carol. I knew that we were singing Uncle Al’s carols because I would look up at my grandpa’s face and his eyes would water whenever his little brother’s carols were sung. Being four years old, and knowing that someone who wasn’t in the room had moved them was a big realization for me. I don’t know that I aspired to be a composer at that young age, but I knew it was a powerful thing that composers could do. I started writing little songs myself around that age, and I guess just haven’t stopped!

Tell us what you know of the Burt family’s carol writing tradition.

My great-grandfather Bates Burt was a self-taught musician – a minister – and he really loved poetry. In 1922, he decided to write a poem and set it to music. He sent the carol out as a Christmas card to his small circle of family, friends, and parishioners in Michigan.  For some 20 years he continued that tradition.

Bates passed down to his children a real love of text and the inherent musicality of text. So it is not surprising to me that Bates’ son, Alfred Burt, my great uncle, grew up with the idea that text is really important, and to be able to bring the music out of the poetry is the composer’s goal. Uncle Al did that so well.

Alfred picked up the carol writing tradition in 1942 and a number of his carols became quite famous. How did they break out into the larger world?

Abbie Betinis and her grandfather
Abbie Betinis and her grandfather, John Burt, 1984

His carols became famous because—well, first of all, they were fantastic! And Alfred Burt’s carols went out to a much wider circle because of his Hollywood connections.

Uncle Al was a jazz trumpeter in the Alvino Rey Orchestra, which had a singing group as part of it called the Blue Reys. The story goes that in 1952 Al asked the group to sing one of his carols so he could check the harmonies. The carol was “Come Dear Children” and they liked it so much they asked Al if they could add it to the performance for the annual King Family Christmas party. Al was hesitant. He didn’t want to appear pushy—he was a good Midwesterner at heart. But “Come, Dear Children” was added to the other familiar carols and it was the hit of the party.

The next year Al was diagnosed with lung cancer and had very little time to live. He wrote three carols in the year he was dying. “The Star Carol” was his last carol and he was still messing with the harmonies the day he died in February 1954. Toward the end he asked his wife, my great aunt Anne, to make a promise: to take care of his daughter and to take care of his carols. And she did.

What are some of the famous Alfred Burt carols that people will recognize?

My generation will remember growing up singing along with “Caroling, Caroling” at the end of A Muppet Family Christmas. My parents’ generation remembers Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “The Star Carol” and Nat King Cole’s “Caroling, Caroling.”

The first recording of all 15 of Alfred Burt's carols was in 1964 by the Voices of Jimmy Joyce, called This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed a medley of Burt Family carols for the album We Wish You a Merry Christmas with the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams.

In 2001, you decided to begin writing your own carols. What was your first?

It was called “In a Far Judean City” based on a text by Bates Burt that he had turned into a carol in the 1930s.  I extracted the text and reset it to new music. It was kind of a presumptuous way to continue the tradition!  I just wanted to know if I could write a carol. The family seemed to really like the idea of the tradition going further. I was a little worried about that, but it is a sacred story to our family. And a tragic story too, that Alfred Burt died so young. I am older now than Alfred Burt was when he died.  I will always wish I could have met him.  But I feel like I get to know him better every year through his music.

The original Bates Burt Christmas carol card for "In a Far Judean City," 1930

That year Minnesota Public Radio discovered you and the Burt family tradition. How did that connection come about?

In 2001 I had just graduated with my theory/composition degree from St. Olaf College and was singing with the Dale Warland Singers. Dale happened to program, without knowing about my connection, two of Uncle Al’s carols. I opened up my folder and was shocked.  I ran up to Dale after the first rehearsal waving my arms and pointing to the carols and saying, “This is my family!”

I had just written “In a Far Judean City” and I had the audacity to ask Dale if we could premiere it at the preconcert talk at the Christmas concert. So I got a little quartet together and I sang alto. There was a lot of enthusiasm afterward about the carol and the whole idea of the family tradition.

Two weeks later, Tom Crann with Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered called and asked me if I could come into the studio and record the carol. I almost dropped the phone. It was really exciting. So our little quartet recorded it, I did a little interview, and we’ve been doing that every year since.

How do you start writing a carol? With a text, a melody, an idea?

I guess I start by loving everything about Christmas—family, food, the traditions. There are so many more things to write about than shepherds and Santa and snow. I am motivated by things you don’t necessarily hear about in Christmas carols—the loneliness people can feel at Christmas, or the nostalgia.

What are examples of some of your “non-snow” carols?

I have a little carol called “Be Like the Bird,” which I love. Carol with a capital “C” is very much a traditional music form—some verses, a singable refrain. I have been writing carols with a small “c”—ones that are pushing the limits of what that traditional form is. “Be Like the Bird” is a canon, which is different from what a traditional carol would be.  It is a carol we have learned as a family and now we know it and sing it. To me, that is what a carol has been in my life—something the whole family learns and sings together.

Last year I wrote a carol called “The Mirthful Heart,” for women’s trio with hand drum, about keeping joy in our hearts all year, even when things outside of us are lonely or chaotic or not peaceful at all.  

I don’t want to write the same carol twice. That is my goal. I’m learning that if you’re really going to revive a tradition, you need to make sure it doesn’t get stale.

So do you have that in mind as you write a carol, that it is to be sung in people’s living rooms, not necessarily performed in concert?

Definitely. That is the difference, because the rest of the year I am writing concert music. This is my one time of year when I really can just hunker down at my piano with the snow falling outside and think about what it felt like when the grandparents were alive and they were singing with us.

A carol is different from a concert piece where you have all of your dynamics, all of your breathing and phrase marks. A carol score to me is more of a blank canvas. It is a short form. But you don’t want every verse to sound exactly the same. Short form gives conductors  the opportunity to say, let’s have women only on verse two or a soloist only on verse three.

There is a refrain, something memorable that you want people to learn -- to get group participation. Carols are such an inclusive form and so is the canon form. Even “The Mirthful Heart,” which is not a strict verse-chorus form, has the Noel, Noel part that repeats as the other parts change around it. It is a contemporary take on what verse-chorus can mean.

So, can you give us a sneak preview of your carol for 2013?

This year’s carol, “Carol of the Stranger,” is a collaboration with a wonderful poet, Michael Dennis Brown. In the choral world, he is probably most famous for his work with composer Stephen Paulus. He wrote the text for “Pilgrim’s Hymn” and “The Road Home.”  It has been incredible working with him on these lyrics.  He teases me and feeds me cookies, and we laugh and make fun of ourselves while we talk philosophy and art. What is better than that?

My mother, Emily Burt Betinis, is a visual artist and has created a beautiful wreath design for the cover of the card this year. Inside we always print the actual sheet music of the carol. I want people to read the music. I want them to know that art form. And we always tell people to tune in to Classical Minnesota Public Radio to hear the carol on the air! This year it will premiere on Friday December 20, at around 8:45 am Central time.

Emily Burt Betinis spray glitters the 2012 card for “The Mirthful Heart."

Many choruses have sung your family carols in concert. This year the Chicago Chamber Choir is honoring the three generations of carol writing in your family. Tell us about how that collaboration came about.

After I write and premiere each carol, I make the scores available through my own company, Abbie Betinis Music Co., for a few years to get any kinks out. I get a lot of feedback from conductors during that time – I want to make sure there are no typos, that the score is easy to read, and that it sits in the right key for all kinds of singers. Then I send them over to Fred Bock Publications who distributes them through Hal Leonard. After that, I don’t always know where they go. Conductors order them, and sometimes I hear about it later.

But this year, I got an email from Timm Adams, the artistic director of the Chicago Chamber Choir. He said they were planning to feature all three generations on their Christmas program, and I was so excited I jumped in my car at 4 am and drove to Chicago to be at their dress rehearsal last Saturday. We had a great time workshopping the music together.  

A number of choirs have been putting on these three-generation programs of Burt Family Carols. The Indianapolis Men’s Chorus did a whole Burt carols program in 2011 – they even made their concert program into a Christmas card (so everyone took their seats and ripped open the envelope!) A few other choirs across the country have themed their holiday programming around the Burt tradition: Utah Chamber Artists, St. Martin's Chamber Choir in Denver, the South Metro Chorale here in Minnesota. And people are doing creative things with them too. Michigan State University’s Women’s Chamber Ensemble used one of my carols this year for their video Christmas card, which was quite lovely, and brings the tradition back to its roots as a musical greeting card.

That must be gratifying for you that so many people are singing these carols.

It’s lovely! Every choir puts their own personality into their performance. I have never heard a Burt carol done the same way twice. The energy of the chorus, each singer’s own emotions and memories, and whatever the director is telegraphing always comes out in the voices. It is so fun to sit in on rehearsals and hear these carols sung differently every time. You can tell immediately when a choir has made the music their own—and what they need to say in that moment comes out through the carol.  

That is, to me, the best extension of the family tradition. Because these really are still holiday greetings, after all. Finding those points of real human connection between the composer, singers, and audience is the whole point. And for me personally, it always feels like my family just got a little bigger.

The Burt Family Carols
Listening Sampler

Rev. Bates G. Burt (1878-1948)

Let’s Have a Merry Song Tonight
Happy Voices, Sweetly Singing
When I View the Mother Holding
Let Christmas Be Merry

Alfred Burt (1920-1954)

Caroling, Caroling
Nigh Bethlehem
This is Christmas (Bright Bright the Holly Berries)
The Star Carol

Abbie Burt Betinis (b.1980)

Run, Toboggan, Run
Be Like the Bird
The Mirthful Heart
Behind the Clouds

Related Links

Read more about the Burt Carols on Abbie Betinis's website.

Watch this video about the history of the Burt Family carol tradition.

Watch this 2011 video of two Abbie Betinis carols sung live on Minnesota Public Radio: "Come In, Come In" and "Carol of the Snow."

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