Christmas Concerts 1994

December 1994

Program Notes

Ave Maria

Jacobus Gallus (1550-91)

Star in the East Anonymous, Early American

O magnum mysterium

Ned Rorem (b. 1923)

Lullay my liking Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
He came all so still Jerry Troxell (b. 1936)

Coventry Carol

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Sing lullaby Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
What Sweeter music can we bring Wayland Rogers (b. 1941)

Alleluia: a newe werk

Anonymous (15th-c. English)

Nowel Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936)

INTERMISSION

 

from Swingle Bells

arr. Ward Swingle (b. 1927)

Make we joy now in this fest

William Walton (1902-83)

Hodie Christus natus est William Matthias (1934-92)

Allons, gay bergeres

Guillaume Costeley (c. 1530-1606)

Angels and the Shepherds Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967)
Christmas Spiritual Medley arr. Joseph Jennings

NOTES ON THE MUSIC by Jonathan Miller

Jacobus Gallus: Ave Maria
This is one of those pieces that says a great deal through economical musical means.  Shifts of color or harmony can be quite subtle: often just one note moves, while the other voices stay constant.  Gallus also frequently shifts upward to a new inversion of the same chord, producing a shimmering effect in the upper voices.  His treatment of the words “Benedicta tu in mulieribus” is beautifully constructed, though overlapping downward motives in the lower voices.  The joyful chordal texture at the end fittingly announces the virgin birth.

Anonymous (New England, 1840s): Star in the East
Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata rediscovered this piece, found in an unusual Northern collection called The American Vocalist.  Like many in that collection, this song evokes shape-note style in its angularity and open harmonies.  However, there is a warmth and slightly urbane character here, which sets it apart from much Southern practice.  The result is a haunting setting of a text which was set by many composers after the Second Great Awakening.

A note about popular tastes is in order: In the score, there are sharps at many cadences, which to me sound very awkward when sung.  Joel Cohen told me that the sharps were thrown in as a visual trick to appease the arbiters of European taste and “correct” harmony, who were rapidly dominating New England musical matters under the watchful eye of Lowell Mason.  Rather than sing the sharps, we’re ignoring them in this performance, though they probably helped sell books.

Ned Rorem: O magnum mysterium
This is the most dissonant piece on our program.  Yet it teases the ears, tugging at the shirttails of conventional tonal harmony at crucial points (especially the transition back to the opening words).  It’s also a gorgeous study in counterpoint, weaving intricate imitative lines between bass and alto, and breaking into intense lyricism toward the end.

he text structure is unusual here.  Rorem breaks the third line after “Dominum,” thereby focusing attention on “natum jacentem”—the little one, just born, lying in the manger.

Gustav Holst: Lullay my liking
The classic English carol form is alive and well here: refrain, then “verse + refrain” until you’re done.  Unlike a typical medieval carol, which you’ll hear later on the program, Holst spins a different solo line for each verse.  The words are taken from the Sloane Manuscript.  We are singing in Middle English.  The refrain is deliciously sensitive to the text; the altos’ unexpected F-sharp at the word “darling” always leaves me wanting to hear it again.

Jerry J. Troxell: He came all so still
Jerry Troxell, formerly of Chicago and now living in St. Louis, is a versatile musician—saxophonist and teacher (at Saint Louis University), bandleader, arranger, and well-respected composer of both concert music and multimedia pieces.  Troxell’s medieval text may be familiar from the setting by Martin Shaw: I sing of a maiden, on the recent Christmas album by His Majestie’s Clerkes.  After repetitions of the phrase “He came all so still” on pitches only a step of two from the opening, Troxell returns to the opening pitch at the very end.  This return, combined with his spare, delicate harmonic language, evokes a profound sense of stillness, which lingers long after the singing is done.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Coventry Carol
This simple, effective setting is scored for tenor, baritone, and bass; we sing the middle two verses one to a part.

Herbert Howells: Sing lullaby
The carol-anthem embodies the great sweetness of the English carol tradition.  Howell’s setting of F.W. Harvey’s poem evokes a gentle blanket of snow, falling constantly while the baby sleeps.  The poem’s irony is brief, and set jarringly by the composer: just as snow’s softness cannot hide its cold edge from the baby, we are reminded that “the naked blackthorn’s growing to weave his diadem.” Still, his crown of thorns is decades away, and Howells does not linger long before returning peacefully to the snowfall and lullaby at the end.  Indeed, I know of no more exquisite ending to a carol than this.

Wayland Rogers: What sweeter music can we bring
Wayland Rogers’s active musical life revolves around singing, teaching, and conducting, as well as composing.  A baritone, with a repertoire ranging from the medieval to the avant-garde, he is equally at home in opera, oratorio, and song, and is the recipient of a Grammy nomination.  He has taught at several universities and is presently on the faculty at Loyola University.  He is Artistic Director/Conductor of the Camerata Singers and Music Director of North Shore Unitarian Church. He has composed over 60 works for voice, including songs, chamber music, and choral works, which are receiving worldwide attention.

What sweeter music was written in 1991 for the Camerata Singers.  This setting of Robert Herrick’s classic poem ebbs and flows beautifully, with both brief and broadened crescendos and diminuendos that seem to constantly ask the title’s question.  The distinctive opening motive returns at each text refrain, much like the medieval carol.

Anonymous (15th-c. English): Alleluia: a newe work
This is one of the greatest hits of 15th-century English polyphony, if one can judge by its recent popularity.  Anonymous 4 and the Hilliard Ensemble have both recorded this sprightly work.  It features duets, which weave around one another seamlessly, so that you sometimes can’t tell which voice is which; I’m making it more difficult for you my mixing up the singers.  These are juxtaposed with robust announcements of the “new work” in three-part medieval harmony, emphasizing the fauxbourdon style which made John Dunstaple so famous.  The English sound, termed the contenance angloise, made a big splash at the Council of Constance in the 1420s.  From five and a half centuries’ remove, it is easy to be uplifted by this infectious piece.

Richard Rodney Bennett: Nowel
Bennett is one of the most eclectic contemporary composers to be found anywhere.  He excels in avant-garde classical music, jazz suites, and film scores—including Murder on the Orient Express, as I discovered recently when watching the rented video.  A gifted pianist, he also played percussion in early British performances of Le marteau sans maître by his teacher, Pierre Boulez.  Much of Bennett’s music has carefully crafted texture and immediately engaging rhythms; Nowel, a short and brilliant piece, is no exception.  The poem, by Walter de la Mare, evokes true holiday bustle!

INTERMISSION


Swingle Bells (arr. Ward Swingle)
The Swingle Singers were eight academically trained French singers, gathered together by Ward Swingle to explore new vocal techniques and to perform vocal arrangements of instrumental music.  They became internationally successful.  Swingle later moved to England and assembled a group of British singers known as Swingle II; the Hilliard Ensemble’s John Potter was a member of that ensemble.

Swingle Bells, a series of choral publications, covers dozens of carols, arranged in inimitable “swing-le” style.  These arrangements are taken from volumes two and eight of the series.  They are scored for bass guitar, drums, and occasionally other instruments, as well as SSAATTBB singers; as you’ll hear, however, the carols are plenty lush with voices alone.

Walton: Make we joy now in this fest
This is one of Walton’s very first choral pieces.  The text alternates phrases of (middle) English and Latin, while the musical setting is full of delicious seventh chords.  We’re using a variety of small groups to sing the verses.

Matthias: Hodie Christus natus est
This popular text, taken from the liturgy for Christmas Day, may be familiar from Sweelinck’s setting, or from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Matthias, a most inventive British composer, infuses the text with rhythmic drive and an angular melody that whips around, ever arching higher, to culminate in the jubilant “Alleluia” sections.  The final “Gloria in excelsis Deo” reminds me of a brilliant finish to an organ piece, with all the stops pulled out for the higher overtones.

Costeley: Allons, gay bergéres
This is a party of the French Renaissance shepherds.  Costeley was a prominent figure in French court circles during the later sixteenth century.  Despite his courtly affiliation, I prefer to sing this piece with the more rustic pronunciation of earlier French, where “oi” or “oy” is spoken as “weh.”  This makes the final phrase (“Le Roy boit”) a mouthful, but fun.

Also: I wish I knew why it was important to sixteenth-century Parisians that the little baby “suckles well without his finger.” If anyone has any insights into this, please tell me afterward at the reception.

Kodály: Angels and the Shepherds (Angyalok és pásztorok)
Zoltán Kodály was, along with Bela Bartók, one of the most prominent and tireless folksong collectors of the 20th century.  Kodály himself was probably the single most prolific European composer of choral music in the past hundred years.  This electrifying setting repeatedly uses traditional Hungarian melody in the “Shepherds” sections.  (The piece is scored for high voices; since we only have four women singing this concert, the tenors and I are filling in the lowest alto parts toward the end of the piece.)  The infectious dialogue is touchingly sweet throughout; the final section, with ever-brighter harmonies reminiscent of Bulgarian female choral singing, is enough to stand your hair on end.

arr. Joseph Jennings: Christmas Spiritual Medley
I first heard this piece on the album Our Heart’s Joy by the men’s group Chanticleer, of which Joseph Jennings is Musical Director; one time through, and I was hooked.  Jennings is a prolific and unusually talented arranger of pop music, spirituals, and other genres for choirs.  This medley itself employs a number of styles, too numerous to catalogue here.  I will guarantee that you have never heard Sweet Little Jesus Boy sung like this before.