Welcome to “Cheers,” the tenth-anniversary edition of the popular winter holiday concert by Griffin Choral Arts—this year including for the first time the GCA Children’s Chorus, which will have its debut in the Sunday afternoon concert. We also welcome back our popular guests the Barrister Brass from Macon, as well as other guest musicians who join us in celebrating the season.
As with other Tenth Anniversary Season concert titles, “Cheers” suggests plaudits, we hope from the audience toward the performance, but even more importantly from everyone connected with GCA back in gratitude to you, the audience, without whom none of this would be possible. Of course, the concert title also calls to mind the many “cheers” of the season, including–but certainly not limited to–convivial holiday toasting. So here’s to us all! Cheers!
Once in Royal David’s City Arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015)
Since 1919 perhaps the most famous Christmas Eve processional in English-speaking Christendom, this carol has been the traditional opening of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University in England. A special honor for a boy soprano in the Chapel Choir is to be selected to sing the opening stanza (and, to spare the nerves of potential honorees, the soloist is not named until just before the service begins). The fact that our Thursday night soloist is female is reinforced by the rapidly increasing numbers of girl and young women singers in British church and college-chapel choirs (with King’s College now an increasingly rare exception).
The text is by Irish hymnist Cecil Frances (Fanny) Alexander (1818-1895). The hymn tune IRBY is by English composer Henry J. Gauntlett (1805-1876), and tonight’s arrangements are by A. H. Mann and David Willcocks, the latter music director at Kings’ College Chapel from 1957 through 1974.
Where Shepherds Lately Knelt Carl Schalk (b. 1929)
Published in 1987, this new carol reflects the deeply-moving ability of prominent Lutheran church music composer Carl Schalk and his frequent collaborator-lyricist Jaroslav J. Vajda to bring us as frail mortals individually to the Manger Scene. Perhaps Schalk’s (and Vajda’s) best-known Christmas anthem is the very similar Before the Marvel of This Night, which opened the first “Christmas with Griffin Choral Arts” in 2007.
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten’s famous suite of carols has for many years been a favorite inclusion on yuletide concerts, including “Christmas with Griffin Choral Arts” in 2009. When on that concert only excerpts were sung, and in arrangements for both women’s and men’s voices, tonight’s performance features the entire work as sung by women’s voices—Britten’s original intent.
No better appreciation of the origins and power of this work can be found than in the 2009 program note by the Clerestory ensemble (an affiliate of the San Francisco early Music Society):
Perhaps the most enchanting and haunting feature of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols is its simplicity. What could be more sublimely austere than medieval carols in Middle English, sung by robed choirboys, accompanied by the plucked strains of a lone harp? The picture and the sound evoke the hopeful, watchful sense of the days leading up to Christmas. All of this goes a long way to understanding [the enduring popularity of] A Ceremony of Carols, . . . and the piece is indeed all of these things that it appears to be.
But as is often the case with much-loved music–particularly when much is known about the composer’s life and times–there is more to the story. Britten wrote Ceremony in 1942 while crossing the Atlantic aboard a Swedish cargo ship–a dangerous proposition at any time, but much more so during wartime while German submarines prowled the ocean. (Britten actually intended to use the month-long voyage to complete what would become his well-known Hymn to St. Cecilia, but these early sketches were confiscated by customs authorities, who feared that the music was in fact a secret code.) Britten had departed his native England at the outset of the war in 1939 and headed for the United States, where his fame was growing quickly, and where, it must be noted, he was unlikely to be conscripted into the British army.
After several years abroad, he . . . found it time to return home, and . . . embarked on this voyage not knowing if Britten’s return home would be greeted by admiration for his boldness, anger at his flight, mere indifference, or– as it turned out–a mixture of the three. Shortly before departing the U.S., Britten had received a commission to compose a harp concerto, and in the meantime he had begun to familiarize himself with the instrument. This provided the basis and probably the inspiration for his choice of harp to accompany the vocal parts in Ceremony. Although the first published edition of the work recommended that boy sopranos–not an uncommon lot in Britain–sing the three treble lines that comprise the chorus, Britten’s early manuscripts show that he originally conceived of them as women’s parts. Some years later, Britten authorized an arrangement of the piece for four-part mixed voices (possibly at the suggestion of his publisher).
A Ceremony of Carols consists of eight polyphonic settings of mostly anonymous 15th- and 16th-century poems, which Britten had discovered in a handbook called
The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems that he found in Nova Scotia while the ship was in port. These eight carols are bookended by statements of the Gregorian chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (“Christ is born today”), and midway through the set is an astounding interlude for harp solo that features this same plainchant tune. The carols themselves show a remarkable diversity of styles, from the jubilant exultations of “Wolcume Yule” and “Deo Gracias,” to the pastoral solos of “That Yongë child” and “Balulalow,” to the martial urgency of [the expanding canon] of “This Little Babe.” (http://www.clerestory.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Ceremony-of-Carols-Program.pdf)
While Britten’s masterful fitting of musical styles to the texts is evident in the texts themselves (see the Texts and Translations section of this program), of special interest is the source of the famous “This Little Babe” movement. The text was written by Robert Southwell (1561-1595), a poet and a religious martyr–hanged, drawn, and quartered for being a (Jesuit) Roman Catholic in the purges of the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. (The text of “In Freezing Night” is also Southwell’s.) Of further significance in the rather horrific context of the text of “This Little Babe” is that the warlike imagery—especially the attack against “Satan’s fold” (reminiscent of the ancient trope of Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell,” though in this case not the resurrected Christ but the newborn Christ)—surely reminded Britten’s original listeners of the horrors of World War II they were experiencing firsthand. The music imitates the spiritual battle, with jagged rhythms and intensifying complexities in canonic, rapid-fire voice entrances. At the Sunday performance the GCA Children’s Chorus will join in the singing of this carol.
Ave Maria 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”).
Wilbur Skeels, publisher of several of Biebl’s works, recounts the 1964 composition of the piece:
Herr Biebl told me that when he was organist/choirmaster and teacher in the Fürstenfeldbruck parish near Munich he had in his church choir a fireman. It was common for companies, factories, police and fire departments, etc. to sponsor an employees’ choir, which often would participate in choral competitions and festivals with other similar choirs. This fireman asked Biebl to please compose something for his fireman’s choir for such an occasion. The result was the Ave Maria (double male choir version).
The piece gained practically no attention in Germany for many years. However, when Biebl was the head of choral programs for the Bayerischen Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) he made a habit of inviting American choirs to come to Munich and sing on the radio and with other German choirs. One of these choirs [the Cornell University Glee Club] was introduced to his Ave Maria and brought it back to the U.S., where it became increasingly popular. When Chanticleer recorded it, it became a hit, not only in the U.S. but in Germany too, which now considered the piece must be special as it was such a hit in America! Biebl did arrangements for other voicings, and the seven-part mixed choir arrangement is now probably the most popular.
Biebl’s 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. Not surprisingly, Biebl is known mainly for this piece, but he is widely esteemed 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.
[The following four works, sung by the GCA Children’s Chorus,
will be presented only on Sunday, December 4.]
The Heavens Declare J. S. Bach; arr. Michael Burkhardt
This arrangement, by prominent American church music composer Michael Burkhardt, was composed for the Southern Illinois Children’s Choir, in Carbondale, in 1997. The music comes from Bach’s Cantata 68 and employs two treble instruments plus piano in support of the voices. The text comes from Psalm 19:1-6, 14, in an 1874 English translation by Thomas R. Birks.
Patapan Arr. Audrey Snyder (b. 1953)
This French (Burgundian) carol is by Bernard de la Monnoye (1641-1728) and arranged by Audrey Snyder. The late Renaissance character of the piece is reinforced by the addition of flute and hand drum.
Arranger Audrey Snyder completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Education from the University of Oregon and did additional post-graduate work in England. During her many successful years as a public school music teacher she began to write choral music for her own students, publishing her first choral piece in 1978. Since that time she has published numerous original choral compositions and arrangements spanning the entire spectrum of choral music from Top 40 pop to the classics and from elementary through high school levels.
A New Year Carol Benjamin Britten
This comes from an early Britten collection of secular carols entitled Friday Afternoons, published in 1936, seven years prior to the publication of A Ceremony of Carols. As musicologist Rosamund Strode notes in the edition, “Over the months from May 1933 to August 1934 Benjamin Britten composed a series of twelve songs with piano for children, . . . written for his brother’s preparatory school at Prestatyn [in northern Wales], where the singing classes took place on Fridays.”
The text is a traditional Welsh folk song, used in a transcription by English poet Walter de la Mare and included in his 1931 collection Tom Toddler’s Ground. Many references in the text are obscure, likely conflating Christian references to the Virgin Mary, baptism, and communion with earlier Celtic New Year’s symbols and customs. The repetition of the phrase “levy dew” in the refrain may come from the Welsh llef y Dduw (“a cry to God”) or to the French levez à Dieu (“raise to God”). Also possible is the baptismal/renewing association of the English “lave,” from the Latin lavare for washing/cleansing.
There Was a Pig Traditional Lancashire
While many familiar holiday carols featuring animals are of the “Friendly Beasts at the Manger” variety, there are exceptions, such as this charming secular carol from Lancashire in northwestern England. The only direct connection with the religious holiday is the “Chrisimas Day in the morning” timing of the animals’ actions, made all the more charming by the text’s likening those actions to human farming chores.
Do You Hear What I Hear Arr. Harry Simeone (1911-2005)
It may surprise that this famous commercial “hit” originated in response to a world emergency. In October 1962 the then-spousal song-writing team of Noel Regney (1922-2002) and Gloria Shayne (1923-2008) created the song as an impassioned plea for world peace during the Cuban missile crisis. The Harry Simeone Chorale recorded the piece later in 1962, and this version sold a quarter-million copies in its first week. While the lyrics may be familiar, they take on shocking new significance when such references as “way up in the sky” and perhaps even the title line “Do you hear what I hear?” may (re)sound as hints of barely-repressed fears of launched nuclear missiles. It is no wonder that the composers’ most emphatic line in the text was “Pray for peace, people everywhere!”—an exhortation surely at least as relevant today as when GCA first performed this song in 2009. Making such a consideration of the future even more poignant is the joining in of the new GCA Children’s Chorus at the Sunday performance.
Hollywood arranger and choral director Harry Simeone is even better known as the 1958 popularizer of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Christmas Cantata Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006)
Daniel Pinkham was quoted in a 1981 Boston Globe interview as observing that “the single event that changed my life was a concert [he heard as a teenager at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they escaped from Germany. . . . Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity. It shaped my whole outlook.” These traits are abundantly clear in Pinkham’s now-famous Christmas Cantata (subtitled Sinfonia Sacra), commissioned in 1958 by King’s Chapel in Boston, where Pinkham served as organist for 42 years, and dedicated to the chorus at the New England Conservatory of Music, on whose faculty Pinkham served for 48 years.
Musically, Pinkham’s cantata may be described as neo-medieval, showing the influence of the composer’s interest in the simplicity of medieval plainchant, modal composition, and folk-dance-like rhythmic variations. Pinkham is also paying homage to Renaissance settings of medieval Church hymns by the Venetian Gabrieli family (Giovanni of whom is also represented in tonight’s concert), in the use of vocal contrast, brass choir, and organ. Yet the piece is also modern, showing the influence of Pinkham’s teachers Walter Piston and Aaron Copland (at Harvard) and Samuel Barber and Arthur Honegger (at Tanglewood). Other influences in the musical style of the Cantata include the twentieth century enthusiasts of “early music” Carl Orff and Maurice Ravel. As an example of Pinkham’s musical wit, we can even hear a quotation from Ravel’s sensuous Bolero, cleverly at the reference in Movement Two to the animals’ watching over the newborn Christ Child lying in the manger. Even for all these notable similarities to his admired models, both medieval and modern, Pinkham’s musical style is clearly also his own, and accessibly so.
The structure of Pinkham’s cantata closely follows the traditional Gregorian chants that were musical dramatizations of crucial scenes in the life of Christ. From the tenth century onward, chants such as the Quem Quaeritis (“whom are you seeking?”—the angel’s question to the Maries visiting the tomb of the risen Christ) became the basis for actual mini-dramas, in which actors portrayed the characters in the biblical stories. In the case of the Christmas shepherds, the chant was the Quem vidistis pastores—Shepherds, whom did you see?—in which witnesses ask the dramatic question of the shepherds, who then tell of their visit to the Christ Child. Pinkham draws us into these dramatic dialogues by combining the traditional dramatic tropes with musical effects appropriate to those texts.
The first movement is subdivided into a bold, dramatic opening (maestoso), followed by a quick, energetic, dance-like conclusion (allegro molto ritmico):
Movement Two is marked adagio but could as easily have been called misterioso, particularly for the other-worldly writing for female voices and for the organ. The great O Magnum Mysterium is the ancient text sung in monasteries at the first light of dawn (Matins) on Christmas Day.
Movement Three—the Gloria in Excelsis Deo—is probably the most recognizable section in the cantata, bursting with hearty joy reminiscent of a medieval estampie (a foot-stomping dance style). Its text combines parts of the High Mass (the “Glory to God” from the Christmas Gospel of Luke) with Psalm 100.
In keeping with GCA’s celebration of its tenth anniversary season, this is another work in tonight’s concert that serves as retrospective of its history to date, the Pinkham Christmas Cantata having been performed in December 2008 in its entirety and then the Gloria in excelsis deo movement again in December 2013.
Peace, Peace Rick and Sylvia Powell; arr. Fred Bock
This popular “closer” at yuletide concerts was composed in 1962 by Rick Powell (1935-2006) and Sylvia Powell (b. 1937) when they were students at Florida State University. Also an FSU alum, GCA director Dr. Steve Mulder has either sung or conducted this choral benediction on every Christmas concert (whether as a student or conductor in church, school/college or community chorus) since 1982. He is especially pleased to have the GCA Children’s Chorus join in this year’s singalong.
Program notes by Bill Pasch, copyright (except as otherwise noted) 2016, with thanks to Steve Mulder and David Stivers.