The most important word to be sung and heard in tonight’s fifth-season “Christmas with Griffin Choral Arts” is the word Word.
The source of this significance is the opening of the Christian Gospel of John, a passage on which much of tonight’s music is based: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 1-2, 4-5, 14, NRSV)
Here, the “Word” refers not simply to the contents of the book called the Bible but to nothing less than the Son of God (in Greek, the Logos), coexistent and coeternal with God the Father.
At least three pieces on tonight’s program quote directly from John’s stirring prologue. Additional selections build upon other dominant themes mentioned or implied in the prologue: light, shining, glory, grace, truth, incarnation in love.
In a still broader sense, tonight’s music sings in the spirit of John’s concept of the transcendence of the Word. We customarily expect songs to be based on words (that is, to have lyrics), but we often need reminding that the nonverbal elements of music can—sometimes even mysteriously–carry us to heights and depths that words alone cannot. (In this sense, it is also worth noting that John’s prologue “sings” rather than merely “narrates.”)
We might even imagine that, had Saint John been choosing a title for the traditional spiritual sung near the end of tonight’s concert, he might well have chosen “What a Wonderful Word!”
Arise, Your Light Has Come David Danner, 1951-1993
Composed for and premiered in 1989 in Louisville KY at the Hallelujah Amen Service of the National American Choral Directors Association, this rousing, almost symphonic Advent anthem has become a highly popular offering at yuletide concerts. Beginning with his own psalm-like lyrics, Danner soon brings into the arrangement the famous Lutheran Reformation hymn Wachet Auf (Sleepers, Awake!) by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608).
There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob (from Christus) Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1809-1847
Often cited in BBC Magazine as a musical prodigy even more exceptional than Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, to a prominent Jewish family of “Renaissance” temperament, including not only bankers but artists and other intellectuals (including his famous philosopher grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn). Like Mozart, his sister (Fanny) was also a talented composer and instrumentalist. In 1816 the family converted to Christianity (the Lutheranism dominant in German Protestantism), adding the surname Bartholdy.
Again like Mozart a master of many musical forms, Mendelssohn is best known today for his orchestral compositions and above all for his choral works, such as the oratorio Elijah. Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the music of his Lutheran predecessor J. S. Bach perhaps singlehandly ensured that Bach’s reputation not only survived but flourished into the future.
There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob is a chorus from an oratorio later given the title Christus by Mendelssohn’s brother when he collected the elements of the unfinished work at his brother’s death in 1847. The work begins with C. K. J. von Bunsen’s text drawn from Numbers 24:17: “There shall a star come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; with might destroying princes and cities.” Closely following the text, the music opens quietly over the undulating movement of triplet patterns in the accompaniment. At the warlike passages the music harshens accordingly, before returning again to the quieter, more serene promise of the rising of the star from the lineage of Jacob. The anthem then concludes in Bach-chorale-like fashion with an appropriate, straightforward four-part Lutheran hymn, in this case another well-known one by Philipp Nicolai, Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern! (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star).
O Magnum Mysterium (sung in Latin) Morten Lauridsen, b. 1943
Morten Lauridsen has been Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for over thirty years. He was named “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2005 and was awarded the 2007 National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award in the United States. In the latter ceremony at the White House he was lauded “for his radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth.”
Perhaps his most-often-performed work, O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery) was premiered in December 1994 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, one of the nation’s foremost choral ensembles, for whom Lauridsen served as Composer-in-Residence from 1994-2001.
In the introductory notes to the music, Lauridsen writes, “For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O magnum mysterium text depicting the birth of the new-born King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God’s grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy.”
Mary’s Lullaby John Rutter, b. 1945
No yuletide concert is complete without at least one carol by British composer John Rutter, who has been publishing carols since his teenage years. This gentle 1979 setting focuses on the traditional Nativity scene in the stable, with a text by Rutter himself. Even though the text does not quote John’s Gospel, it nonetheless alludes to it in the opening melodic motif, identical to the opening phrase of the ancient hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Divinum Mysterium), one of the most famous hymns celebrating the Incarnation in the spirit of the Gospel of John.
The Glory of the Father Egil Hovland, b. 1924
Egil Hovland, an organist and choirmaster in the Church of Norway (Lutheran), was named a Knight of the Royal Order of Saint Olav in 1983. His 1957 anthem The Glory of the Father is the first of tonight’s direct quotations from John 1. The unaccompanied setting is notable for the simplicity of its ABA structure, in which the opening statement of John 1:14 is sung in relatively open-harmony chant style, which is then followed by a section quoting John 1:1-4,11 in Renaissance-polyphonic style. Ending the motet is the repetition of the chant-like initial theme.
This Child, This King Daniel E. Gawthrop, b. 1949
Griffin Choral Arts has performed works by prominent American composer Daniel Gawthrop in several previous concerts. Tonight’s selection, “This Child, This King,” is an excerpt from a cantata by the same title, commissioned by the National City Christian Church in Washington. D.C., and premiered at the church in 1989. The text is by Gawthrop’s spouse, Jane Griner.
Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ Is Born) Mark Hayes, b. 1953
Popular with many church choirs is the music of Mark Hayes, which appeals for its fusion of gospel, jazz, and pop in a modern-classical style. Of this 2005 composition Hayes’s publisher (Exaltation Publications) writes, “Bright, bold and brassy describes this Christmas anthem in 6/8 time. Hayes uses Latin and English texts to herald Christ’s birth. The fanfare style introduction starts with the basses, building a pyramid effect to include all voice parts. The primary melody is traded . . . and has an engaging, lilting feel. The chorus virtually explodes into a triumphant ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ in the bright key of A.” With great consideration for his listeners, Hayes alternates sections of the Latin text with English translations of those passages.
Sweet Songs of Christmas
This arrangement for four-part adult chorus represents an important educational collaboration between the Canadian Brass and songwriter Chris Dedrick, composer Emily Crocker, and choral director and educator Henry Leck, the result of which was the premiere and recording of this yuletide anthem by the Brass and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir in 1995. Dedrick (1947-2010) earned fame as the chief songwriter for the 60s/70s psychedelic pop band “the Free Design.” Crocker is director of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and a leading national expert in choral music for children. Leck is an associate professor and director of choral activities at Butler University in Indianapolis and Founder and Artistic Director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, as well as an internationally sought-after clinician at youth chorus festivals.
Ave Maria (sung in Latin) Franz Biebl, 1906-2001
Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria was made immensely popular by the San Francisco-based men’s choral ensemble Chanticleer, and continues to be the group’s most requested piece. The setting combines the traditional Angelus (the annunciation from Archangel Gabriel to Mary that she will bear the Son of God, to which Mary responds in humble obedience) with the Ave Maria itself (often known as the Rosary prayer, petitioning Mary to help intercede with God on behalf of her fellow mortals). Also included in the text is a quotation from John 1:14 (Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us).
Composed in 1964 and befitting its ancient subject, this setting blends two musical styles: Gregorian chant in the solo trio verses followed by modern Romantic harmonies in the choral refrains. The result is a prayer-meditation that sounds much older than it actually is, but which in its compelling simplicity is one of the most ravishing compositions in all choral literature.
Biebl is known mainly for this piece, but he is esteemed even more widely in Germany as one of its most distinguished composers of choral music. During his incarceration in a prisoner of war camp near Battle Creek, Michigan, in World War II, he was allowed to continue his choral composing and even to arrange concerts of choral and chamber music.
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day John Rutter, b. 1945
This piece for women’s chorus and harp is one of six treatments of traditional British carols interwoven with harp interludes from Rutter’s larger work entitled Dancing Day, published in 1974.
The remarkable text is a Middle English lyric (quite likely from western England, probably from Cornwall), first collected in 1833 in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. The voice speaking in the carol is that of the Infant Jesus. In each of the eleven stanzas the Christ Child sings of his future, beginning with his Nativity (“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”), and then of his baptism, temptation in the desert, Passion, Harrowing of Hell, Resurrection, and Ascension. Befitting its primary use as a Christmas carol, however, Rutter’s arrangement includes only the first three stanzas. The reference in the opening stanza to “the legend of my play” certainly refers to the “drama” of Christ’s life as well as to the fact that popular medieval plays staged these important scenes in the life of Christ. The memorable chorus–“Sing, Oh! my love! This have I done for my true love”–stands firmly in the tradition of Christ’s being the “bridegroom” of his beloved spouse, the Church.
In his liner notes for his Christmas Night CD Rutter writes of this carol, “The age-old relationship between religion and the dance is the source of the [carol’s] unusual and vivid imagery.” The charming image of dancing is also traditional, especially in other Cornish carols such as the Eastertide carol “The Lord of the Dance.” Fittingly, the ¾ time signature (waltz time) accentuates the dance-like charm of the carol. Rutter embellishes the triple meter in the accompaniment with witty rhythmic variations and interjections of triplet patterns, the latter all the more playful for their sparsity.
Child of Peace Jeffrey Van, b. 1941
Performer and composer Jeffrey Van is among the most prolific and widely recognized leaders in the world of the guitar. GCA concertgoers may remember the performance of his profoundly affecting suite “A Procession Winding Around Me,” based on Civil War poems by Walt Whitman, at this past May’s concert, “The Guitar and the Poets.” Van has appeared in Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall in London, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He has often recorded with the Dale Warland Singers, and has served as teacher to Sharon Isbin and members of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet. He serves on the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota.
Van’s 1979 carol “Child of Peace” (for which he also wrote the text) is the most austere piece on tonight’s concert, with its wide-open chords, hints of the ancient Phrygian mode, and stark melodic lines. Yet despite the severity of the style (or possibly for some listeners even because of it), it may be the most hauntingly beautiful. The homophonic (chord-like) final section is perhaps an homage to the concluding Bach-like chorale structure also employed by Danner and Mendelssohn earlier in tonight’s program.
The Word Was God Rosephanye Powell
This infectiously rhythmic piece based on John 1:1-3 was written in 1996 for the Collegiate Choir at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the composer served on the faculty (as well as later at Georgia Southern University and now at Auburn University).
Dr. Rosephanye Dunn Powell, noted soprano and one of the nation’s finest choral composers, earned degrees from Alabama State University (BME), Westminster Choir College (MM), and Florida State University (DM). She is also a noted scholar of African-American music, especially that of William Grant Still.
Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child Arr. Lloyd Larson, b. 1954
This setting of the increasingly popular Christmas spiritual is by Lloyd Larson, a widely-published freelance composer in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
Joy to the World Arr. Cathy Moklebust, b. 1958
This large-scale setting of the familiar Isaac Watts text and G. F. Handel music is by Cathy Moklebust, among the world’s premier composers for and conductors of bell choirs. A percussionist by training, she began her career as a public school instrumental music instructor in her home state of South Dakota and has gone on to win numerous honors for her composition for handbells, including ASCAP Writer’s Awards every year since 2001.
Program notes by Bill Pasch
With thanks to Steve Mulder