Each year the world seems to urge that preparations for “The Christmas Season” begin even earlier than they did the year before. “Jingle Bell Rock” starts chirping out over store PA systems barely after Halloween. Light displays are erected in early November and often illuminated well in advance of Thanksgiving.
The Christian calendar prepares for Christmas differently–though surprisingly early as well. On March 25–exactly nine months prior to the December 25 date established in 325 CE by the Council of Nicaea as the date of Christmas–the Feast of the Annunciation is traditionally celebrated, commemorating the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the teenaged, unwed Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to conceive and give birth to the son of God (as told in Luke 1:26-35).
In this way, the Annunciation also prepares us for Christmas. Accordingly, tonight’s program features at least two works focusing on this theme, one of them the keystone of the program: the powerful King’s College version of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Herbert Howells.
A second sub-theme of tonight’s concert reflects both sacred and secular Christmas-caroling traditions. Following the intermission Director Stephen Mulder has cleverly programmed a selection of carols with numbers in their titles or otherwise focusing on the uses of number symbolism both for devotion and for entertainment.
Numbers, dates, and expanding calendars all relate to time, whose technical measurements may frustrate our longing for the simple joys we hope to find in “the true meaning of Christmas.” Music also depends on the measurement of time. Monday night GCA rehearsals often include exercises in the Robert Shaw “count-singing” method of learning rhythms and building ensemble. Yet above all these time-demarcating conventions and cultural habits rises the song (is that the angels we hear?) of the entry of Timelessness into our time, of the Infinite into our rude cipherings and approximations. We of Griffin Choral Arts “wish you a merry Christmas,” in the hope that tonight’s music will allow it to be timeless as well.
Sans Day Carol
Arranged by John Rutter, this traditional carol comes from Cornwall, in the southwest of England, whose original language traces to Brythonic (Breton, or “Briton,” a branch of Celtic) rather than to English roots. While the carol was transcribed in the nineteenth century it may have come from earlier times. The title refers to a village named after a patron saint of the area, Saint Day (or Saint They). The first three stanzas of the song are attributed to a legendary singer from the village, with the fourth stanza added by later Cornish tradition. The imagery of the lyric bears a characteristic Celtic flavor. The end-rhymes provide clear evidence of the differences in pronunciation between British and American English.
Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk.
And Mary bore Jesus Christ, our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the green-wood, it was the holly!
Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross.
Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.
Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead.
Jesus Child John Rutter, b. 1945
Both words and music are by the now-Godfather of the contemporary Christmas carol, British composer John Rutter. Among his more youthful carols (published in 1974), the folk-style “Jesus Child” imitates calypso music and, in its lyrics, Caribbean vocabulary and speech rhythms.
The playfulness of this composition clearly reflects Rutter’s partiality to the holiday season that inspired what has become his most famous writing. When asked for the reason for the popularity of his carol treatments, Rutter confessed, “I love Christmas. It’s the child in me. . . . I still feel in just those few magic days a year, that we have the world as it might be.”
Have you heard the story that they’re telling ‘bout Bethlehem,
Have you heard the story of the Jesus Child?
How he came from heaven and was born in a manger bed?
Mary was his virgin mother pure and mild.
Sing alleluia, worship the Jesus child and praise his mother mild.
“Glory to God,” the angel hosts are singing: Listen to the story of the
Have you heard the story of the poor humble shepherd men,
Sitting on the hillside with their flocks at night?
Suddenly the angel tells them: “Hurry to Bethlehem;
Go and find the Jesus child, the world’s new light.”
Jesus child, lying at Bethlehem, sleeping safe at Mary’s knee,
Save my soul and bring me to paradise.
Let me join the angels singing glory to thee.
Have you heard the story of the kings from the orient,
Following the star that’s shining over his head?
Offering their precious gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense,
Kneeling with the ox and ass before his bed?
Brothers, let us celebrate the birth of the Jesus Child,
Sisters, come and welcome him, the newborn King;
Praise the Lord who sent him down from heaven at Christmas time;
Young and old and rich and poor, his praises sing.
This beloved German carol was created by Joseph Mohr (lyrics) and Franz Gruber (music) in 1818 in a time of war and economic depression. Tonight’s arrangement–by Sir David Willcocks (b. 1919), legendary Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1957-1974–preserves the simplicity and rhythmic idiom of the original folk tune.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
Nur das traute, hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf’ in himmlische Ruh’,
Schlaf’ in himmlische Ruh’.
Silent night, holy night!
Everything sleeps; alone awake are
Only the loving, holy pair.
Charming boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleeep in heavenly peace.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht,
Durch der Engel Halleluja
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter, ist da!
Christ, der Retter, ist da!
Silent night, holy night!
To shepherds it was first made known
By the angel, Alleluia,
Sounding forth loud, far and near:
Christ, the Savior, is here!
Christ, the Savior, is here!
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, O wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’,
Christ, in deiner Geburt,
Christ, in deiner Geburt.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, O how laughs forth
Love from your divine mouth,
Here strikes us — the hour of Salvation,
Christ, at your birth,
Christ, at your birth.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
The translator of the Latin hymn Adeste fideles, Frederick Oakeley was an Anglican cleric who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. The musical setting–including the famous final-stanza descant–is by David Willcocks.
A Child Is Born in Bethlehem Samuel Scheidt, 1587-1654
This carol, by German Lutheran composer Samuel Scheidt, employs a double choir. The “macaronic” lyrics combine both Latin and German (the latter translated into English for this arrangement by David Willcocks).
A Child is born in Bethlehem, Alleluia.
And joy is in Jerusalem.
Rejoice, rejoice, sing high, sing low,
To thee, O Lord, be glory paid,
Thou Son of Mary, mother maid.
To Holy Trinity give praise,
With Deo gracias always.
Samuel Scheidt was an important transitional figure between late Italian Renaissance composers such as Gabrieli and northern European baroque composers, through his associations with his contemporaries Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius. The “modernizing” of the Italian Renaissance motet is evident in the increasingly close “fit” of text, tune, harmony, and structure.
The melody Puer natus in Bethlehem arose (perhaps as early as the thirteenth century) from a liturgical trope whose addition to the chanting of the mass for the first day of Christmas may have been an attempt to make the service more “folksy.” The tune remained popular well into the baroque era, influencing Bach’s uses of it in several of his choral and organ works.
I Saw a Maiden
This tune comes from the Basque region in the western Pyrenees Mountain border between France and Spain, and is arranged by British composer Edgar Pettman (1865-1943). The fifteenth-century text was published in the nineteenth century by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, best known as the author of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The use of the English folk tune “Forest Green” with this carol is more common in England (along with the equally popular tune “Wengen,” by H. Walford Davies) than is the use of the “St. Louis” tune more familiar in the United States. The arrangement is by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Thomas Armstrong.
This is another Basque carol (arranged by David Willcocks), whose tune (also known as “Gabriel’s Message”) is becoming more widely used in American hymnals. The text (from perhaps as early as a fourteenth-century Latin hymn, “Angelus ad Virginem,” again translated in the nineteenth century by Sabine Baring-Gould) tells the story of the Annunciation and of Mary’s response—which is re-introduced in the major work to follow in tonight’s concert: the Magnificat of Herbert Howells.
The angel Gabriel from heaven came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary, Most highly favour’d lady, Gloria!
For known a blessed Mother thou shalt be, all generations laud and honour thee,
Thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold, Most highly favour’d lady, Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, “To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.” Most highly favour’d lady, Gloria!
Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say: Most highly favour’d lady,
(To guard against excessive piety, as well, perhaps, as for other reasons, English choirboys are notorious for “mispronouncing” the refrain “most highly flavoured gravy.”)
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis Herbert Howells, 1892-1983
Among the most memorable experiences possible for a music lover (especially a lover of church music) is sitting in the “choir” area behind the high altar in a cathedral of the Church of England and participating in the late afternoon service called Evensong (referred to in some other Christian denominations as Vespers or Evening Prayer). Choral Evensong always features the canticles called the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, sung by the highly trained choir of men and boys (and, with increasing frequency, of women and girls) and accompanied by the cathedral’s mighty pipe organ. We have the privilege tonight of imagining ourselves in such a setting, for we have all the ingredients: an excellent pipe organ and organist, fine acoustics, a well-prepared choir, and a ready and open spirit in the assembled congregation.
The term “Magnificat” is the Latin word for the first of the famous words spoken by Mary in response to the Archangel Gabriel’s “annunciation” to her that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. The version of these words printed below is from the KJV (Luke 1:46-55) and the Anglican hymnals and Book of Common Prayer used by Howells.
My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath shewn strength with his arm:
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel:
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.
In Evensong, the Magnificat is always concluded by the ancient doxology called the Gloria Patri:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
World without end. Amen.
The term “Nunc Dimittis” is also the Latin opening of the biblical narrative (found in Luke 2:22-35) in which a devout man named Simeon witnesses the ritual presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, takes the infant in his arms and sings of the fulfillment both of prophecy and of his own life:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles:
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.
As with the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (also known as the Song of Simeon) is also always followed by the Gloria Patri.
While musical settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis (either in combination or separately) are common in church music of many Christian denominations, such settings probably reached their highest form as musical art in the Church of England. Anglican church musicians (and Episcopal musicians in the US) have historically taken pride in renewing these two canticles of Evensong by composing new musical versions. Howells, in fact, composed a number of “Mag/Nuncs,” of which tonight’s version (composed in 1945 and subtitled “Collegium Regale” for the choir at King’s College of Cambridge University for which he composed the setting) is a relatively early example—though certainly one of his best and most popular. (GCA Director Stephen Mulder is an expert on Howells’ Mag/Nunc settings, having written his master’s thesis on the subject.)
Herbert Howells is now esteemed as one of the giants of Anglican church music. He studied at the Royal College of Music under other greats of Anglican tradition: Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Charles Wood. He was also an early admirer of Ralph Vaughan Williams, regarding him throughout life as his mentor.
Following his own near-death in 1915 of Graves’ disease, Howells endured in 1935 the death of his nine-year-old son from what was believed to be either polio or meningitis. It was only at about the time of his composing this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis that he returned to active publishing. Yet, as British journalist Simon Heffer observed of one of the compositions from that time in Howells’ life, “Herbert Howells drew glory from a well of grief.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/7981393)
Choral Fantasy on In Dulci Jubilo, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, 1879-1933
Op. 75, no.2
Adding continental spice to tonight’s mostly English yuletide wassail is this organ “improvisation” on the traditional Christmas tune best known in hymnals as “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (although a more literal translation of the medieval macaronic Latin/German “In dulci jubilo, nun singet and seid froh” is “In sweet rejoicing now sing and be glad”).
Karg-Elert’s genius lay in his organ fantasias (“flights of fancy”) upon well-known chorale tunes, perhaps the most familiar of which is his setting of “Now Thank We All Our God.” His treatment of In dulci jubilo establishes the complete melody of the chorale in the first sixteen measures (unlike his fragmentary “quotation” of the Nun Danket theme in that fantasy), before embarking on the rich, imaginative variations that luxuriate in all the available colors and dynamics of the organ.
The German-born composer Karg added the name “Elert” early in his career at the suggestion of his concert agent. In 1919 he became a professor at the Leipzig Conservatory, succeeding Max Reger. This fantasy on In dulci jubilo was published in 1914.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The familiar text was first published by its author, Charles Wesley, in 1739. The well-known tune is by Felix Mendelssohn, and is famously ornamented by the third stanza descant by Sir David Willcocks.
The Crown of Roses Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893
The frequent mis-reading of the title is appropriate nonetheless: this remarkable lyric (translated into Russian from an anonymous English source by nineteenth-century Russian poet A. N. Pleshcheev) does indeed refer to the Crown of Thorns, though in the context of a legend about the boyhood of Jesus.
When Jesus Christ was yet a child he had a garden small and wild,
Wherein he cherished roses fair, and wove them into garlands there.
Now once, as summertime drew nigh, there came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree, with shouts they plucked them merrily.
“Do you bind roses in your hair?” they cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The boy said humbly: “Take, I pray, all but the naked thorns away.”
Then of the thorns they made a crown, and with rough fingers pressed it down,
Till on his forehead fair and young red drops of blood like roses sprung.
This carol, also often referred to as “The Legend” or as “Tchaikovsky’s Legend,” is the fifth item in his Sixteen Children’s Songs, opus 54 (1883). The theme was used in an unusual string quartet (consisting of violin, viola, and two celli) by a near-contemporary of Tchaikovsky, Anton Arensky, who believed that the additional cello reflected the dark character of the song.
In characteristic Russian choral style, the ending requires the basses to sing a low B (two octaves below middle C).
The Infant King
Yet a third Basque carol in tonight’s sampling, this arrangement is by David Willcocks, with words by Sabine Baring-Gould. A beautiful, tender lullaby, the carol even anticipates the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (Easter’s “gladsome morning”).
This traditional English carol is arranged by Stephen Cleobury, current Director of Music at King’s College of Cambridge University in England.
The title reference is to the Seven Joys of Mary (an alternate title for the carol), a common theme in medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary (though the numbers of her joys ranged variously between five and fifteen).
Not only a carol about numbers, it also employs a “counting” motif similar to that used in the well-known “Twelve Days of Christmas” following next on tonight’s program.
The source of the text is the 1871 collection Christmas Carols New and Old, compiled and edited by Henry Bramley and John Stainer.
The first good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of one;
To see the blessed Jesus Christ when he was first her son:
When he was first her son, good man: and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to all eternity.
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of two;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, to make the lame to go: (etc.)
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of three;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, to make the blind to see: (etc.)
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of four;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, to read the Bible o’er: (etc.)
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of five;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, to bring the dead alive: (etc.)
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of six;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, upon the crucifix: (etc.)
The next good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of sev’n;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ, to wear the crown of heav’n: (etc.)
Perhaps of particular interest to American audiences are the variations of the words used in Appalachian versions of the carol (as collected by John Jacob Niles). Unlike the mainly Anglo-Catholic versions used in England, the more sentimental “protestant” Appalachian versions refer to “her little Jesus,” and often list Mary’s “blessings” (rather than joys) in order thus: (1) God’s only Son; (2) could read the Bible through; (3) could make the blind to see; (4) would live to help the poor; (5) could bring the dead alive; (6) was her Godly Son; (7) was safe at last in heaven.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Its lyrics no longer thought to be a secretive “code” for memorizing the catechism by English Catholics during Protestant persecutions in the sixteenth century, this well-known carol is now regarded as the straightforward celebration of the Christmas gift-giving of which it sings. Tonight’s humorous, often “sound-painting” arrangement is by John Rutter.
Past Three a Clock
This English carol is based on the night watchman’s cry. The source for the published version of the traditional carol is The Cambridge Carol-Book, being Fifty-Two Songs for Christmas, Easter, and Other Seasons, compiled and edited by Charles Wood and George Ratcliffe Woodward (London, 1924).
Of special note is the musical and verbal wit of the close, multiple rhyming.
Refrain: Past three a clock, and a cold frosty morning:
Past three a clock; Good morrow, masters all!
Born is a baby, gentle as may be,
Son of th’eternal father supernal.
Seraph quire singeth, angel bell ringeth:
Hark, how they rime it, time it, and chime it.
Mid earth rejoices hearing such voices
Ne’ertofore so well caroling Nowell.
Light out of star-land leadeth from far land
Princes, to meet him, worship and greet him.
Myrrh from full coffer, incense they offer:
Nor is the golden nugget withholden.
Thus they: I pray you, up, sirs, nor stay you
Till ye confess him likewise, and bless him.
A Merry Christmas
This popular yuletide carol from the West Country of England is arranged by Arthur Warrell (1883-1939). A popular yuletide concert and caroling-outing “closer,” it also brings this evening full circle, perhaps in a surprising way. It shares with Mary’s “Magnificat” a wider theme of social justice. Mary sings, praising her God: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Too often forgotten in the “spirit of the season” is that “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” was often sung by the poor, begging for food at the wealthier homes they were serenading. As we depart tonight, may these realities remind us of the benediction that concludes worship services in many faiths: Go in peace. Remember the poor.
–Program notes by Bill Pasch