Dr. André J. Thomas, Guest Condcutor
What Sweeter Music – Michael Fink (b. 1939)
The First Nowell – Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)
Jesu Carols – Stephen Paulus
The Ship Carol
Waye Not His Cribb
The Neighbors of Bethlehem
Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
O magnum mysterium
Quem vidistis pastores dicite
Hodie Christus natus est
Angels We Have Heard on High – Traditional French Carol
O Little Town of Bethlehem – Philip Brooks (1831-1908) and arr. by Lewis Redner (1831-1908)
Joy to the World – George Frederic Handel (1695-1759) and arr. by Lowell Mason (1792-1872)
O Holy Night – Christopher Harris (b. 1985)
Ding! Dong! Merrily on High – Howard Helvey (b. 1968)
In Silent Night – Mitchell Southall (1922-189)
Glory, Glory, Glory o the Newborn King – Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
Shout for Joy! – André J. Thomas (b. 1952)
Go Where I Send Thee – André J. Thomas
Silent Night – Eric Nelson (b. 1959)
Music has played a vital role in our seasonal celebrations for a long time. Indeed, what better way than music is there to express these complex feelings of joy and sorrow and reverence and humility and symbolism and wonder that is Christmas? We can scarcely imagine Christmas without music. What’s more, most traditional Christmas music was intended to be sung by more than one singer. Choral music is a special form of human expression from a sociological perspective. As David Byrne recently said about group singing: “There is a transcendent feeling in being subsumed and surrendering to a group. […] One becomes a part of something larger than oneself, and something in our makeup rewards us when that happens. We cling to our individuality, but we experience true ecstasy when we give it up.” Music adds to the sense of poetry and paradox of the Christmas season in this way. The paradox is that, by joining a community in the pursuit of a common purpose, we stand a good chance of finding ourselves.
The A Chorale Christmas program tonight reflects the variegation of impressions that composers of different times and places, all masters of their craft, have created in their own seasonal musings and meditations on Christmas and the Nativity.
First on our program are some carols. The word “carol” is thought to be derived from the medieval French word “carole,” which was a round dance in which the dancers formed a close circle. Carols were the popular songs and dances of the time—the folk music, as opposed to the music of the church. In those days, there were carols for every holiday or special occasion: May Day, Easter, the beginning of Lent, the end of Lent, harvest festivals, all of the individual saints’ days, not to mention the celebrations associated with the coming of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Times change, however, and today the word carol is exclusively applied to those songs that are sung only at Christmas time. As we know them today, carols are largely a product of the fifteenth century, when religious songs began appearing in the common, everyday languages of the people, instead of in Latin, and familiar folk tunes began replacing the prescribed forms of church music. The stories of the Bible naturally lent themselves to such songs, especially the dramatic events surrounding the Nativity.
What Sweeter Music (1970) by North American composer Michael Fink (b. 1939) is a modern-day carol, a reflective call to celebrate the Nativity. The opening harp arpeggios outline a serene, almost pastoral setting that evokes a gentle homecoming, the picture of a community that is gathering to sing carols (“Awake the voice! Awake the string!”). The function of life-renewing reflection described above is hinted at in phrases like, “give the honor to this day … that sees December turn’d to May.” It is a carol of hope and communion.
The First Nowell is a familiar, traditional classical English/Cornish Christmas carol, most likely dating from the early modern period (first published in 1823), although possibly earlier. The arrangement of this beloved song is by Stephen Paulus (1949–2014), a great and highly prolific North American composer in his own right, whose own original work, the Jesu Carols (1985), is next up.
Influenced by his musical heroes, Britten, Messiaen and Poulenc, Paulus’s carols are emotive miniatures based on medieval carols. In an interview, composer William Mathias described how he (and Paulus) liked “using medieval words partly because you’re slightly distanced from them, or at least the words are not sentimental.” This lack of sentimentality is apparent in Paulus’s choice of text in the first carol, Jesu’s Lyfelyne, written by a medieval prioress, which resembles more a list describing the genealogy of Jesus than a Christmas carol. The Ship Carol is a 16th century anonymous Scottish variant of “I Saw Three Ships.” It references the legend of Joseph of Arimathea sailing to England with Jesus, Mary, and various saints in tow, bringing with him the chalice from the Last Supper. The rippling harp accompaniment effortlessly carries the singers along their journey during which “Our Lord harped, our Lady sang.” Waye Not His Cribb is an early 17th-century text by English poet Robert Southwell (written shortly before his execution in 1595) that meditates on the irony inherent in the idea that a meager manger was the best the world could do to welcome its Savior. A manger; a feeding trough; a simple rough-hewn indentation gouged into the rock of a hastily borrowed cave-house in Bethlehem. Paulus here reinforces the contrast between the babe’s divinity and his humble humanity by alternating stark dissonance with streamlined tonalism. The Neighbors of Bethlehem is a translation of a 13th-century French carol. The piece is wound up with two lines of text: “God hath appeared on earth below,” set for the lower voices, and with an ethereal bitonal harmony in the upper voices as they sing “O come ye shepherds, wake, arise!” A distinctive motif (heard in the soprano solo) unifies the movement and provides a final call in the harp part over the last chord. Paulus’ carols are elegantly composed pieces, sensitive in orchestration and choral texture, and technically challenging.
Our next work is a sacred choral set by French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963). Born in the heart of Paris at a time when Paris was the heart of the artistic and literary world, Poulenc was a true cosmopolitan. His early fascination with the impressionistic music of Ravel and Debussy was tempered by his friendship with Erik Satie, from whom he learned much about the use of economy and surprise in music. Poulenc’s compositions reflected the strong individuality and sharp wit that characterized his contemporaries. He wrote prolifically, and he soon became a leading figure on the Parisian artistic and social scene. He had been rather ambivalent about his spiritual life for some time, but the death of a close friend in an automobile accident in 1936 prompted him to return to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood. Thereafter, he was to compose many deeply religious choral works, one of which is 1952’s Four Motets for the Time of the Nativity (Quatre Motets pour un temps de Noël). In this set of pieces, as in much of his “pious’ work, Poulenc downplays his urbanized wit and his mischievous aesthetic in order to give a sincere voice to his faith. His reviving of the motet, a traditional form of French church music that had been popular in the Renaissance, highlights his pursuit of tradition, but his music is by no means traditionalist. The four motets exhibit a sense of confidence in his compositional abilities, transforming from restrained and austere to joyful as the work progresses. The first motet, O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery), presents an almost anguished account of the mystery of the Nativity, announcing the birth of the baby Jesus with hushed reverence and praising the Virgin Mary. It superimposes a very clear soprano melody over the subdued accompaniment of the lower three voices. Quem vidistis pastores dicite (Shepherds, tell whom you saw) takes its text from the Christmas Matins service. It features a somewhat melancholy and slightly anxious melody on the top voices. The soprano, alto, and tenor play off the bass in a clever word-by-word contrapuntal setting. Videntes stellam (Seeing a Star) transports us to the serene, starlit night through which the Magi travel bearing their gifts for the Christ-child as they follow the star to Bethlehem. Their journey is depicted using modern and non-Western harmonies to establish a mood of mystical wonder that builds to a fanfare of rejoicing, making extensive use of the upper three voices to create a celestial, airy texture. The final motet, Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is Born), is a proclamation of joy, culminating in the words, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo, alleluia.” It is the most exuberant, rhythmic and festive of the set. Poulenc here allows his celebrated sense of humor to the surface, to great effect.
The next few pieces in our program are either composed or arranged by African-American composers. O Holy Night, though it feels like an ageless classic, only dates back to 1843. In that year, in the town of Roquemaure in southern France, the church organ had recently been renovated. To celebrate the event, the parish priest persuaded the wine merchant and poet Placide Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem. Soon after that Adolphe Adam composed the music. It has been a mainstay of the season ever since. Our arrangement tonight is by Christopher Harris (b.1985).
The composer of the delightfully onomatopoeic Ding! Dong! Merrily on High is not known, but the first printed version of the melody occurs in a book of French dances from the sixteenth century. The lyrics that we sing were written by George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English composer who lived from 1848 to 1934. The cheerfully energetic and harmonically fluid arrangement is by Howard Helvey (b.1968).
In Silent Night is a modern carol by Mitchell Southall (1922-1989). In this work, the voices are arranged in such a way that the logical internal resolutions within the moving harmony make it sound deceptively simple. This quality of seeming effortlessness makes it a sublimely beautiful Christmas carol. Very little is known about Southall, but surely, this composition will be sung for years to come during Christmas time.
The next piece, Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King is a well known African-American spiritual featuring call-and-response singer interaction and blues phrasing. Our arrangement is by Moses Hogan (1957-2003), who adds his own words and music to the familiar tune, based on the spiritual “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”
Not only are we honored to have André J. Thomas (b.1952) conducting our ensemble tonight, but, as an added pleasure, we also get to share two of his own Christmas arrangements with you. The first is Shout for Joy!, another spiritual, this one with an energetic rhythmic drive worthy of the song’s festive title. It is lavish and rich in the blues tradition. Contrast this exuberance with the lyrical solo baritone opening of Go Where I Send Thee. The melody is emotional, poignant. It soon develops into a blues-infused dance celebrating the Nativity.
If there is a Christmas carol that needs no introduction, that carol is surely Silent Night. It is so pervasive at Christmastime that most people think that it is one of those songs that has existed all the way back to the time of the Mesozoic era, but it was actually written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in what is now Austria. Traveling troubadours soon began performing the song in their Christmas revues and the rest is history. Eric Nelson (b.1959) did the fine arrangement for tonight’s performance.
We at the Phoenix Chorale thank you all for your continued support and leave you with Christmas cheer and some wise words from the late Andy Rooney:
“One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.”