Dr. Anton Armstrong, guest conductor
With Sonja Branch, percussion, JT Taylor, steel drum, Myra Lin, violin
Jeremy Peterman, piano, Linda Shirck, piano, Tom Ohnesorge, organ, and Joshua Hillmann, piano
A CHORALE CHRISTMAS: All Earth is Hopeful
I. SONGS OLD AND NEW
Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden (Sechs Sprüche, Op. 79, No. 1) – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Christ the Appletree – Stanford E. Scriven (b. 1988)
His Light In Us – Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980)
The Word Was God – Rosephanye Powell (b. 1962)
II. CHRISTMAS IN THE NEW WORLD
All Earth Is Hopeful (Toda la tierra) – Alberto Taulé (1932-2007), arr. James E. Bobb
‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime (Huron Carol) – Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), arr. Christopher Aspaas
The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy – arr. André J. Thomas (b. 1952)
III. A MINNESOTA ORNAMENT
Summer in Winter Carol – Kenneth Jennings (b. 1952)
In the Shepherd’s Keeping – arr. Charles Forsberg (b. 1942)
Night of Silence – Dan Kantor (b.1960), arr. John Ferguson
The Friendly Beasts – arr. Robert Scholz (1902-1986)
Ding Dong! Merrily On High – arr. Carolyn Jennings (b. 1936)
IV. CHRISTMAS FAVORITES
Carol of the Bells – Mykola Leontovich (1877-1921), arr. Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978)
Christmas Time is Here Vince – Guaraldi (1928-1976), Lies’l Hill, solo, arr. John Alexander
The Twelve Days of Christmas – arr. John Rutter (b. 1945)
O Come All Ye Faithful (Sing-along) arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015)
The winter solstice marks the time when the tilt of the axis on which our planet spins reaches its most oblique angle relative to its orbit around the sun. From a perspective of thermal dynamics, this means that the energy from the sunlight that reaches any given point in the northern hemisphere is dispersed over a larger area and for a shorter span of time than at any other day of the year. As such, the winter solstice corresponds more or less with the coldest/darkest time of the year. The more north of the equator a place is, the more pronounced this effect. This is literally the reason for the season. Ancient astronomers did not know the physical details of this natural phenomenon, of course, but they knew from their observations of the sky that the sun was at its lowest point in the sky during this time. Interestingly, almost ironically, though one would expect this dark, cold time of the year to have led people to forlornness and despair, instead, it inspired cultures all over the world and throughout history to establish a midwinter celebration.
Inextricably linked with the agricultural yearly cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, it marked the coming of light, of life, and of hope; the season was seen as a positive turning point. This was as much true for the Ancient Egyptians, Druids, Romans, and Nordic cultures.
Thus, when the early Christian Church was seeking to establish a date on which to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, this season was a ready-made fit. Instead of forcing the people under its ever-growing purview to adopt a new day for the occasion, it simply coopted this already established celebration, and merely repurposed it. The sense of hopefulness and celebration was retained, but the season’s astrotheological/agricultural connotations were now downplayed, and the occasion took on a new significance.
Because in the Christian tradition Christ is the Alpha and the Omega (the beginning and the end), the entire year of worship became a liturgical reliving of the story of salvation in Christ. For Christians, it is the Incarnation, the “Word made flesh,” that is the reason for the season. From this perspective, the story of the Nativity story is a living and immortal poem, and as in all great poetry, at its heart and center is a mythic truth, even an eternal truth. In the baby Jesus we see the hope of the world reflected. The story’s joy is the joy of angels, its music is heavenly—which is to say, transcendent. Its beauty is inexhaustible. Christians find in the humble yet glorious birth of their divine savior a subject worthy of the purest strains that their hearts could sing, and so they never tire of singing about it, with every range of sentiment and from every point of view. Christmas is an affirmation of the sacredness of all human life, a celebration of the birth of the human spirit, and of the innocence of childhood itself.
Advent, as indicated by its name, is thus a season of waiting and expectation, of preparation, a time of longing that reaches far beyond the liturgical celebration of Christmas. Hope fills the hearts of both children and adults, and this hope is a gift of the season’s cultural landscape. Even in our decidedly more secular society, even if people feel distant from childlike beliefs in the Christmas story, we cannot remove its charms from the season. We look forward, with the children, to days of light and joy and hope and human warmth.
It has been a gift-giving season since ancient Roman times, but the greatest gift of all, the most celebrated of its traditions, is undoubtedly music. This is what makes it truly the most wonderful time of the year.
I. Songs Old & New
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed his Sechs Sprüche (Six Anthems) Op. 79, during the last few years of his brief life. Published posthumously in 1848, each of the six pieces corresponds to the main festival days of the Christian calendar, beginning with Christmas. Mendelssohn actually completed the first of the anthems, the Christmas (Weihnachten) one, on Christmas day of 1843. Its opening words, “Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden,” are usually translated, “Rejoice, O ye people of the Earth.” The phrase is first sung by the soprano and alto voices. The tenor and bass voices enter at the close of this first line and interact in a contrapuntal fashion with the former. After a few measures, the entire choir fuses rhythmically and textually and remains unified until the “hallelujah” at the end of the stanza, ornamenting the word in a way that underscores its powerful connotation. The overall effect is impressive, reminding us yet again of Mendelssohn’s ability to work miracles within standard harmonic practice.
Christ the Apple Tree is a poem culled from the 18th century collection, Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs. The text recalls messianic allusions from the Old Testament (The Song of Solomon, 2:3), and The New Testament (Luke 13:18–19 and Revelation 22:1–2) which specifically use a dendrological metaphor to refer to Christ. It has been set to music by several composers over the years. The arrangement for tonight’s performance is by American composer Stanford Scriven (b. 1988). It is a simple, lovely melody that has a distinctive folksy quality.
Our next work is a piece by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980). A recent work, His Light In Us, was commissioned by the St. Olaf Choir for the 2016 St. Olaf Christmas Festival. The text, by Euan Tait, is a touching affirmation of the Christian faith. Love, and only love, is changeless, and this love renews the hope of Christians during the holiday season. This hope can be summed up in a word: Emmanuel—“God with us!” God coming into the world brings, courage, comfort, promise, and light in moments of despair, this hope helps the pious to reorient themselves, to remember that God is ever present along their journey.
Rosephanye Powell (b. 1962) is an American choral composer, singer, and educator. Her The Word Was God (1996) sets the alliterative opening verses of the Gospel of John (1:1–3) to music: “In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God. And the word was God.” The fascinating rhythmic structure of the piece develops from the interplay between the voices. The christological proclamation is introduced simply, beginning in unison and growing into homophony in the men’s voices, then it begins to develop with three independent lines. The second section is more lyrical with the tenors echoing the women. The basses provide harmonic support and foundation as a kind of drone. In the final section, there are many entrances of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word …” from the tenors through the sopranos. During the coda, the song continues to build in intensity until its final resolution.
II. Christmas in the New World
In the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Roman Catholics were finding their congregational voice around the world in regional musical idioms and vernacular languages. Alberto Taulé (1932-2007) was a priest (a Monsignor) at one of the oldest churches in Barcelona, Spain. He obtained a graduate degree in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome as well as a graduate degree in sacred music at St. Pius X Institute. His areas of specialization in music were in organ performance, composition, and Gregorian chant. His name became known in Latin America through his collection, Día de Fiesta, which gave Spanish-speaking congregations in the western hemisphere accessible new songs for every season of the year. The hymn All Earth is Hopeful (originally Toda La Tierra) was first included in Cantoral de Missa Dominical Centre de Pastoral Liturgica (1972). The English translation was by Madeleine Forell Marshall. Its text quotes from Isaiah 7:14 and 40:3-5 with its announcement of the “liberty, justice, and truth” that is to accompany the coming of the Messiah. The simple tune is in rounded bar form (AA’BA) and is intended for unison singing.
‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime (Huron Carol) is the oldest Canadian Christmas carol, written probably in 1643 by Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), a Jesuit missionary. Our arrangement is by Christopher Aspaas of Texas Christian University. The melody is based on a traditional French folk song, “Une Jeune Pucelle.” The original text of the carol was in the Wyandot (Huron) language. The 1926 English version by Jesse Edgar Middleton is noteworthy in that it is a faithful translation that adopts the imagery of the original, which was intended to explain the Nativity story to the Huron Natives. Shepherds here are wandering hunters. The Christ child is wrapped in rabbit skin. The Magi are chiefs who bring gifts of fox and beaver pelt. The translation thus reveals a sense of cultural relativism that highlights the hope of the Christmas season as a universal human experience. It is a beautiful piece. All earth is hopeful indeed.
The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy is a West Indian Christmas carol. Long before Britain took over in 1797, the people of Trinidad were exposed to Christianity through Spanish priests and colonists, and later by French colonists. Among the priests were many musicians who helped to build a local tradition of religious festival music. The Advent season was filled with music as “parranderos” went from house to house using stringed and percussion instruments. Similar to wassailing in some ways, it’s a tradition that still exists throughout the Caribbean islands today. In the mid-20th century, outside cultural influences began to overwhelm the local Trinidadian culture, but a few leading musicians made certain that public concerts kept the musical tradition alive. Harry Belafonte recorded a popular version of this song in 1958. Our arrangement is by André J. Thomas, an American composer and conductor from Florida State University.
III. A Minnesota Ornament
Almost immediately after the American colonies had established their national sovereignty, their expansion westward began. Before the ideal of rugged individualism that the wild west represented took hold, the midwest was settled by people of New England and Dutch stock. Soon they were joined by migrants from other northern European countries: Germany, Norway, Sweden. As evinced in the late 20th century popularity of programs like Little House on the Prairie and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, Minnesota became a model of the stereotypical American heartland. The cultural influence of the European homelands of its people—lighted trees, mistletoe, Santa Claus, and other sundry Christmas iconographies—took root and soon became the template of Christmas present and future throughout the country. Midwesterners were primarily farmers, a people whose temperament was bucolic, pastoral, and, above all, reverent. Stories from the Bible lent themselves naturally to be themes of their Christmas songs, especially the dramatic events surrounding the Nativity. The next five works are either composed or arranged by distinguished Minnesotan musicians.
Summer in Winter Carol is a poem by 17th century English poet Richard Cranshaw (it was originally titled “A Hymn at the Nativity,” from Steps to the Temple). Adapted as a carol, it was set to music by American composer Kenneth Jennings (1925-2015) who made his home, both familial and professional (St. Olaf Choir), in Minnesota. The original text of the poem is a dialogue between two arcane shepherds from ancient Greece and Rome: Tityrus (a shepherd poet in Virgil’s Eclogues) and Thyrsis (the shepherd who tells the story of Daphnis in Theocritus’ first Idyll). It conjures many dichotomies: summer in winter; day and night; heaven on earth, etc. By way of contrast to this kind of erudition, the Christmas carol adaptation is a simple, delicately beautiful outpouring of faith and love for the Christ child on the part of the shepherds from the Nativity story.
Continuing with this pastoral imagery is In the Shepherd’s Keeping, an anthem by Charles Forsberg (also from Minnesota’s St. Olaf) based on a Norwegian melody, sung from the point of view of the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke’s Nativity story. But it also reflects older passages like Psalm 23, which express the sentiment that humanity, feeble though it ultimately is, may be assured of God’s constant companionship because he cares for each one of us, no matter how lowly or troubled we may be. The psalmist (ostensibly David) was not unacquainted with the shepherd’s role, for he had fed his father’s sheep in the mountains around Bethlehem, after all.
Night of Silence by Daniel Kantor, an alumnus of College of St. Thomas, St. Paul, is essentially a quodlibet, that is, a piece that can be sung simultaneously with a previously existing composition. In this case it is a reharmonization of Silent Night. Textually, this work zooms out from the specifics of Christ’s Nativity to explore more generally the hope that it provides to life as it is lived and experienced by real people. Its conception is a tale of longing and belonging, of hope overcoming despair, of faith.
The Friendly Beasts is a Christmas fable set to music by Robert Scholz (1902-1986), another alumnus of St. Olaf. It’s about the gifts that a donkey, a cow, a sheep, a camel, and a dove give to Jesus at the Nativity. It derives from the 12th century Latin song “Orientis Partibus” which first appeared in France and is usually attributed to Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens (1222). The tune is said to have been part of the Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival), which celebrated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and was a regular Christmas observance in the 13th century. During the mass, it was common for a donkey to be led or ridden into the church. The tune became very popular in 17th and 18th century Germany. The current English words were written by Robert Davis (1881-1950) in the 1920s.
The melody of Ding Dong! Merrily On High dates back as far as the 1500s. Its English lyrics are from English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934), and the carol was first published in 1924 in his The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons. Its onomatopoeic title is suggestive of the ringing of bells. The song is particularly noteworthy for its Latin refrain:
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!
[Glory! Hosanna in the highest!]
where the vowel sound “o” of the word “Gloria” is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence. Our arrangement is by Carolyn Jennings (b.1936), another St. Olaf professor/director.
IV. Christmas Favorites
A “classic” is a literary work that is revered and identified as preeminent by the great majority of those who share a culture. Classics play a central, universal role in education and enculturation, becoming familiar to everyone. They are a treasury of shared analogies, idioms, and lessons. Our next piece, Carol of the Bells, a Christmas favorite, is such a classic. Written in 1914 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921), it is based on the four note ostinato folk theme, “Shchedryk.” The chant was associated with the celebration of the new year (Shchedry vechir means New Year’s eve in Ukrainian) after the Julian calendar switched to the Gregorian. In 1936, Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978), the director of the NBC Radio Orchestra, arranged it for his orchestra, setting its principal theme as a bell melody, and copyrighted English words for it. Its theme-and-variations structure makes it harmonically interesting despite its ostinato aspect.
Christmas Time is Here is a song written by Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) for 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first animated Christmas special produced for network TV in the U.S. It became an instant classic. Peanuts, the brainchild of cartoonist Charles Schultz, consistently presented an affirmative view of life, but strenuously avoided anything that might have been considered too sectarian or religious. Despite this, the Christmas special audaciously included a reading by character Linus from the Gospel of Luke at its conclusion. Musically, it is essentially a jazz waltz. Tonight’s arrangement is by John Alexander, who was the conductor of California’s renowned Pacific Chorale for 44 years. In the Christian tradition, the Advent season culminates in the twelve days of Christmas, which begin on Christmas Day and end with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January.
We all know that The Twelve Days of Christmas is an English carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of gifts given on each of the twelve days. The epitome of Christmas levity, it’s a fun classic song to sing; we’ve been singing it since we were kids. It was published in England in 1780 without music, as a chant or rhyming game. Our arrangement is by English composer and conductor John Rutter (b.1945). An interesting thing to note about this song that is not often discussed is the pervasiveness of birds in the gifts listed. There are at least twenty three birds mentioned in this tune (more in some versions). This could be explained by the fact that in late-medieval England (and other places), Advent was a time of compulsory fasting. When the twelve days of Christmas arrived, this fast was finally broken by widespread feasting and merrymaking. These people were hungry! What better gift than delicious poultry?
We close tonight’s program with one of the most beloved Christmas classics, O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles). The English translation of the carol, which is widespread in most English speaking countries, was by the English Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley in 1841. The present harmonization is from the English Hymnal (1906) and our arrangement is by contemporary English composer David Willcocks. This song captures the essence of Christ’s Nativity with a heartfelt simplicity. But whether we are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or some other faith, or even completely areligious, the holiday season tends to awaken the sense of community and communion in people throughout the world. We see it happen every year. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a phenomenon that transcends religion. All the world is hopeful. As the American essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie once wrote:
“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
© 2018 Leon Santiago. All Rights Reserved.