Welcome to the eighth annual Christmas with Griffin Choral Arts, a rich blending of the old and the new, including a renewed welcome to our old friends, the Barrister Brass from Macon.
Tonight’s theme, “Follow That Star,” focuses on the “Star of Wonder” illuminating the Nativity, long a popular image in the Christian celebration of the winter holiday season (although the image of the guiding star has many non-Christian roots as well). Biblically, only the Gospel of Matthew includes the Star story (Matt. 2:1-12), likely based on that gospel’s special interest in the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, specifically of Numbers 24:17 (the basis of the Mendelssohn piece on tonight’s concert). Despite appearing only in the Matthew source, the Nativity Star has become a nearly universal poetic and artistic icon, as reflected in the diversity of tonight’s program. If you listen closely to these star songs you will hear how each composer’s musical language makes that star twinkle and gleam.
Star Carol John Rutter
His name now virtually synonymous with the modern Christmas carol, John Rutter published his first carol in his teenage years. Star Carol (sometimes also titled by the opening lyrics, “Sing This Night”) offers the option to have a children’s chorus join in the singing. With its sprightly melody and rhythms, no Rutter carol better exhibits this popular composer’s appealing inventiveness.
Joy to the World arr. Mack Wilberg
Long thought to be exclusively a Christmas carol, this familiar hymn (tune by Handel, text by Isaac Watts) is increasingly recognized as appropriate to Advent as well. The arranger of this setting, Mack Wilberg, is the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as well as its music director since 2008.
There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
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). As in the Mozart family, Mendelssohn’s 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.
Also like Mozart a master of many musical forms, including orchestral, Mendelssohn is equally well known for his choral works, especially as the oratorio Elijah. Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the music of J. S. Bach perhaps singlehandedly 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 with quiet serenity over the undulating triplet patterns in the accompaniment. At the warlike passages the music harshens accordingly. These contrasting themes eventually sing in counterpoint before returning again to the 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 (sung in German), in this case the well-known Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern! (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star), by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1606).
Star in the East arr. William Allen Pasch
Sharp contrasts can sometimes reflect close similarities. Such is the case in the transition between the elegant European chorale by Mendelssohn and this arrangement of a folk hymn from the rough-hewn American “Sacred Harp” tradition, though this tradition also had European roots in the immigration from the British Isles that brought these tunes to the Eastern U.S. starting in the 17th century. These rugged, almost “primitive”- sounding tunes and harmonies give a haunting effect, perhaps to heighten the awe at the religious images conveyed. While preserving the shape-note character of the source (The Southern Harmony, 1854), tonight’s arrangement adds further reflection on the holy mysteries of the Nativity with a brief soprano descant on the ancient hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (found in the pew hymnal, #81).
The interesting similarity lies in the texts, which both focus on the “Morning Star” tradition. Star in the East uses a familiar text by Reginald Heber (1783-1826) found in many Christian hymnals still today. Both the Nicolai and Heber texts include the theme of “putting the mighty down from their thrones” also contained in the Song of Mary (though the Memley Magnificat following in tonight’s program does not include this reference).
This anthem is of local origin. Arranger Bill Pasch sings in and writes program notes for GCA. The piece (published by Augsburg Fortress) is dedicated to GCA tenor David Stivers and to the choir he directs at First Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City (where Pasch also serves as organist). The 2012 GCA Christmas concert included Pasch’s Carol of the Hen, dedicated to Griffin Choral Arts and published by St. James Music Press.
Magnificat Kevin A. Memley
Rising young composer Kevin Memley is now GCA’s second-most-often-performed composer (beginning in October 2013 and in three concerts since then, counting tonight)–next only to John Rutter. Not coincidentally, Memley’s music appeals for many of the same features that Rutter’s does, including rhythmical (often polyrhythmic) energy and inventiveness often balanced with lush and affecting lyricism. Tonight’s Magnificat was composed in 2012 for Dr. Anna Hamre at California State University Fresno, and uses the same sonic resources as Memley’s Gloria in excelsis (performed at last year’s GCA Christmas program): SATB chorus, brass, percussion, and piano.
The Latin word “Magnificat” refers to the opening words (in Luke 1:46-55) the pregnant Mary speaks (perhaps even sings) in sharing the mutual joy of miraculous motherhood with her aged cousin Elizabeth (bearing her son, the future John the Baptist): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The term Magnificat also refers to the church-music form in which the song of Mary is often set, a form used by numerous composers since the early 17th-century Italian Renaissance. Perhaps the highest development of the musical Magnificat has been in Anglican Evensong, in which the Magnificat is invariably concluded with a musical setting of the Nunc Dimittis (the “Song of Simeon” from Luke 2:29-32). Memley’s Magnificat follows the traditional pattern by ending with the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The overall structure consists of three parts (opening and closing movements in Latin and a middle section in English and Latin).
Another important musical feature of Memley’s treatment appears in the very two opening notes: the word “magnificat” sung over the broad interval of the major seventh—as wide an interval as possible before reaching the “completeness” of the octave. This surely reflects Memley’s imagining the extent of Mary’s ecstasy. This opening seventh then serves as a recurring motif, re-emerging at many points to follow in the work, sometimes surprisingly so, as if Mary’s praise can’t be restrained from constantly bursting forth.
Another important compositional feature is the harmonic language of the middle movement. In a Trinitarian structure the middle movement may represent the Second Person, using the more-understandable English language to suggest the incarnate Son’s special closeness to humankind. More interestingly still, the extraordinary lushness of the harmonies in this section is based on the pattern established by the opening chord progression in the movement, in which a major chord is immediately followed by a minor tonality, perhaps representing the “drama” of the dual natures of Christ, as simultaneously God and human. The combination of both English and Latin languages in the text furthers suggests this Dual Nature.
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow John Rutter
I Wonder as I Wander
Perhaps not always obvious in this straightforward arrangement of Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow is the special significance of the implied references. On the surface the words refer to the shepherds’ leaving their flocks to follow the “star in the east” to visit the newborn Christ Child. Still, however, as with the slave-song “coding” of many African-American spirituals like this, the humble shepherds may well represent nineteenth-century slaves in their “following the drinking gourd”—the Big Dipper constellation pointing in the direction of freedom.
From a different Southeastern American source is the Appalachian carol I Wonder as I Wander, arranged with equally beautiful simplicity by Rutter from music and words by American folk musicologist and composer John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). The fully developed carol is mistakenly believed to be of anonymous folk origin. But at a North Carolina train station in July 1933 Niles heard a plaintive song by a poor young girl. Niles took fragments from this singing and molded them into the carol we know today.
Follow That Star Brian Lewis
Tonight’s concert title finds its most direct expression in this jazzy contemporary setting. Above an introductory ostinato bass line, the higher voices develop in satisfyingly predictable jazz harmonies and rhythms. A slower, more reflective middle section brings in the “star of wonder” reference from the traditional carol “We Three Kings,” but then the opening jazz motif returns to conclude the piece.
Currently a freelance composer, Brian Lewis earned a Bachelor of Music Composition at Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, Ohio; a Master of Music in Choral Conducting at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo; and an Advanced Studies Certificate in Film Scoring at The University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At his website he says this of his background in music: “I was born October 1970 in a suburb of Cleveland, OH. It was in third grade that my love of music was sparked when I learned to play recorder. I started saxophone in 4th grade (my dad wanted me to play oboe, but I thought saxophone was so much cooler), and I continued playing through high school. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I discovered choral music – oh what I had been missing! I loved it from the moment I started singing.”
Poor Little Jesus
This moving setting of an African-American spiritual text is by Alan Raines, who is Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. In the vocal score Dr. Raines provides an unusually detailed but illuminating performance note: “Poor Little Jesus should be sung very slowly, with heavy emphasis on beats one and three, in a feeling of two. . . . It should be sung . . . with a rich tone that is reflective of the genre [of the African-American spiritual]. This mournful lullaby should be sung in a slow rocking motion—as if a slave woman singing to her baby and identifying the life of her newborn to the birth of the Christ, His suffering, and His eventual freedom from death.”
Behold That Star Earlene Rentz
While sometimes mistakenly believed to be from anonymous spiritual sources, this Christmas jubilee song was composed by Fisk University professor Thomas Washington Talley (1870-1952). As with the Rutter settings of the spiritual-based “Star” songs, the implied underlying references to the Underground Railroad also resonate.
Arranger Earlene Rentz received her Bachelor of Music Education from The University of Montevallo in Alabama and her master’s and doctoral degrees in music education from The Florida State University. A native of Moultrie, she has taught choral music in public elementary, junior high, and high schools in Georgia. She has also taught music education courses at California State University/Long Beach, The University of Texas at Austin, and Baylor University. In addition to her current work as a free-lance choral writer, she is a sought-after clinician in choral music education and choral arranging techniques. She frequently conducts choral ensembles in district and regional honor choirs, and has conducted All-State choruses in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky.
Once in Royal David’s City
Although this carol opens many Christmastide “Lessons and Carols” ceremonies (most famously at King’s College of Cambridge University in England) tonight it will serve as the conclusion of the concert (followed only by the traditional GCA benediction, “Peace, Peace”). The reason for this unusual position is the climactic perspective on the “Star” theme provided by the final stanza: “Not in that poor lowly stable with the oxen standing by, / We shall see him [the Christ Child]; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; / when like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”
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.
Mann (1850-1929) was organist at King’s College Cambridge when the Lessons and Carols service was established in 1919, and used his harmonization of the hymn and its famous first-verse boy-soprano solo to open the service.
Program notes and German translation by Bill Pasch (with thanks to Steve Mulder and Marty Watts), copyright 2014.
Griffin Choral Arts performs music under blanket license from ASCAP and from BMI.