Holidays a cappella 2010

December 2010

Program Notes

Angelus ad Virginem


Medieval English carol, arr. Eleanor Daley

O Come, O Come Emmanuel


Gregorian chant (8th century),
arr. Daron Hagen


* * * * * * *


The Angel Gabriel


Basque carol, arr. Alan Smith

Ave Maria


Franz Biebl

Sistah Mary


Spiritual, arr. Rollo Dilworth


* * * * * * *


Of the Father’s Love Begotten


Gregorian chant (13th-c. melody), arr. Edwin T. Childs

Al Hanisim (For the Miracles)


Trad. Hebrew melody, arr. Steve Barnett


* * * * * * *


From Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël

Francis Poulenc

1.             O magnum mysterium


2.             Quem vidistis, pastores dicite




O Thou, Who by a Star


Freeman Lewis, arr. Wayland Rogers

A Cradle Song


Nestor Taylor

Children, Go Where I Send Thee

spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris




Den Signade Dag


Trad. Swedish carol, arr. Nils Lindberg

He Sleeps


Charles Garner

On This Starry Night


Matthew Harris

Salve Mater Misericordiae


Tim Sarsany


* * * * * * *


Three Motets for Christmas


Julio Domínguez

1.             Laudate Dominum



2.             Lux fulgebit



3.             Gloria Patri



Two Latvian Carols


trad. Latvian carols, arr. Andrejs Jansons

1.             Ziemas svētki sabraukuši


2.             Balts sniedziņš snieg uz skujiņām




From Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël

Francis Poulenc

3.             Videntes stellam



4.             Hodie Christus natus est  



* * * * * * *


Christmas Can-Can


Concept and lyrics: Walter Chase

encore: Fayer, Fayer!   arr. Mark Zuckerman


Thank you for joining us today.  We have been presenting holiday concerts since 1994—and it’s a joy for us to know that Holidays a cappella has become a beloved holiday tradition for so many of you.  We are happy that you’re here to enjoy the unique experience of live music.  If you brought friends or loved ones, an extra hearty “thanks” for sharing us with others!

The two dozen songs you’ll hear today come from about ten different lands and reach as far back in time as the 4th century A.D., when the words to “Of the father’s love begotten” were first written in Latin.  Most are in English or Latin, a few being in Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish and Latvian. Styles run from the contemplative to the bluesy, from the harmonic starkness of early American hymn-tunes to the lush chords of Franz Biebl, Nils Lindberg and Charles Garner.


 *   *   *   *   *

One of the main parts of my job as artistic director is to choose the music that goes on the concert.  Because we mostly let other groups in town handle the big “masterworks,” our concerts tend to be made up of about 20 to 25 shorter pieces, all arranged and ordered to give you the best possible experience.  I jokingly refer to myself as a “recovering musicologist”—and it is rather an addictive experience to find just the right combination of songs for you!

Since our last concert was all about food, I’ll use a cooking analogy:  programming a concert is sort of like writing a recipe.  I specify the ingredients; after that, there is quite a bit of flexibility in interpretation.  The singers and Music Director Patrick Sinozich bring these materials off the page and into acoustic life, adding their personal touches and contributing their wealth of experience to make it all work together.  They determine the final tempo markings and breaths, which are sort of like cooking times and temperatures. I trust the musicians so much that I generally keep working in the background while they are all in rehearsal. Generally the first concert is the first time I hear it, too.

*   *   *   *   * 

Holidays a cappella is the program where I find it most difficult to narrow down the field of music to put on the concert.  Just as one shouldn’t have too many ingredients in an effective main course dish, it is inadvisable to have a concert go on too long.  Therefore, one has to make judgments all the time about what stays and what goes.

I sometimes wish that we could have two different concert programs for you in December and sing about 15 days during the month.  This is partly a function of personal history:  when I was in my twenties, there was one point when I was singing in five different ensembles— Holy Name Cathedral’s Chamber Singers, His Majestie’s Clerkes (now Bella Voce), the Harwood Early Music Ensemble, the Burgundian Consort, and Musica Ecclesiae.  I easily had concerts or services on twenty days in December 1983, including those exhilarating (though tiring) church days at Holy Name Cathedral when we’d do two morning masses and then come back for Advent Vespers, all with the late Richard Proulx. 

I must have personally sung about 150 different pieces of music that month. So why wouldn’t I want to bring you the best of those, not to mention a choice selection of the two or three thousand songs I’ve learned since then?  Welcome to the world of selecting music for CAC.

*   *   *   *   * 

Now that I’ve taken you with me down memory lane, I would like to end these notes with a wish to honor the memory of a dear colleague and friend.  I would like to dedicate these concerts to the blessed memory of Richard Proulx, former director of music at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and director of the Cathedral Singers. He was closely affiliated with GIA Music Publications and was one of the most prolific liturgical composers and hymnodists of the late 20th century.

As a musician and conductor, Richard had the intensity of a lion and the demanding ear that made us all want to sing our best for him.  Chicago a cappella was honored to be able to record his Prayer of the Venerable Bede on our recent Christmas a cappella CD. The alto solo in that song is like a clear ray of light shining into a room, and Richard’s light likewise brightened many lives in Chicago and around the world.  His passing was a loss for the entire sacred-music community, and he will be missed. 

—Jonathan Miller

Notes on the music

Arr. Eleanor Daley:  Angelus ad Virginem

The story is told in the Gospel of Luke of “angelus ad virginem”—literally “the angel to the virgin”—when Gabriel tells Mary that she is to bear a son. This upbeat carol tells the story in Latin. We have a sort of musical play on words here;  the traditional, lilting melody in 6/8 meter gets replaced by a more vigorous, angular 7/8 setting in the hands of the renowned Canadian composer Eleanor Daley.

For the record:  Eleanor Daley’s arrangement of The Huron Carol appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Christmas a cappella: Songs from Around the World.

plainchant, arr. Daron Hagen:  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Ned Rorem, in Opera News, wrote, “To say that Daron Hagen is a remarkable musician is to underrate him. Daron is music. Primarily known as a composer of opera, Hagen is a prolific and successful American composer, originally from Milwaukee. His choral music is but a small part of his output, which includes concerti, chamber music, song cycles, and symphonic works.

This setting of the familiar carol is almost shatteringly beautiful in its counterpoint, teasing the listener with sinewy lines based on the beloved melody. Almost the entire composition is sung to neutral syllables. The buildup to the end is a dramatic tour de force, all the more because it is built on so few words.

Basque carol, arr. Alan Smith: The Angel Gabriel

Continuing in the vein of Gabriel’s message to Mary, the story here is similar to the opening “Angelus ad virginem”—this time in English. The translation is at least as famous as the Basque-country tune with which it has been paired. This much-loved English version is by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who was not only a county vicar but also a prolific folk-song collector, and his scholarly treatment of werewolves is one of the most frequently cited studies on the topic. Alan Smith’s classy new a cappella setting borrows some of its spirit from the classic version in the Oxford Book of Carols.

Franz Biebl:  Ave Maria

Made famous in a recording by Chanticleer, this motet has several things going for it musically. First is the alternation of chant with polyphony, a practice called alternatim that dates back to medieval liturgy. The piece also has a double-choir effect (four voice parts in one “choir” and three in the other), which gives it great textural interest and moments of contrast, a sort of mini-alternatim structure. Finally, Biebl has a good sense of dramatic tension in his rhythm and harmony. While the opening choral section repeats three times, the piece continues to propel itself forward, especially toward the end, when the volume swells upward and the vocal range extends to the soprano heights and bass depths.

Spiritual, arr. Rollo Dilworth:  Sistah Mary

Rollo Dilworth is a choral superstar. Currently on the choral faculty at Temple University, Prof. Dilworth is in demand internationally as a clinician and workshop leader. His successful arrangements of spirituals and gospel music have propelled him to the forefront of the choral-arranging world in the United States. Also a composer for the musical theatre, his revisions to the musical satire Sanctified! were premiered last month at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C.

In his arrangements, so we have learned, Dilworth is careful to research all available variants of the spiritual that he wants to set. Once he has settled upon a version of the text and melody, the arranging process begins. He enjoys arranging tunes that are not the best-known ones, such as this wonderful piece, Sistah Mary, which he arranged for Chicago a cappella in celebration of the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Plainchant, arr. Edwin T. Childs: Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Here is another tune intimately paired with its English translation, though the tune did not originate with an English text. In his too-brief life, John Mason Neale (1818-1866) penned several of the most famous hymn texts in use today, including “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and—also see above—“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  This carol, “Of the father’s love begotten,” is a joint effort between Neale and Henry W. Baker, who edited and extended Neale’s original for the publication Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), which has become a classic source for hymn texts.

The tune is the Latin plainchant melody Divinum mysterium, probably first written down in the 8th or 9th century. The new arrangement by Edwin Childs is a truly haunting one, with deceptively simple materials woven together for maximum effect. 

Jewish liturgical prayer, arr. Steve Barnett:  Al Hanisim—For The Miracles

Steve Barnett is one of the choral field’s leading producers of sound recordings, having produced virtually all of Chanticleer’s discs, including the Grammy winner Colors of Love. He has been a prolific arranger of Hebrew melodies as well as spirituals and is represented in the recent Oxford Book of Spirituals. Chicago a cappella was fortunate to have Steve Barnett serve as session producer for its Go Down, Moses CD, published in 2000.

Al Hanisim is the only prayer added to the liturgy for the relatively minor holiday of Chanukah. This composition, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers, is based on excerpts from the extended Al Hanisim prayer.  Barnett writes: 

I am thrilled to know that my old friend Jonathan Miller and his wonderful Chicagoa cappella will be performing my Al Hanisim—For the Miracles in this year's Holidays a cappella concerts. The text, taken from the traditional Synagogue liturgical prayer, concisely recounts the highlights of the story of Chanukah, thanking God for the miracles that were performed for the Jewish people leading to the rededication of the Great Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 165 BCE. I combined traditional Jewish melodic cantillation modes with more modern western harmonies and compositional styles to create an Al Hanisim for today. My sincere thanks to Jonathan and all of the singers of Chicagoa cappella for bringing my music to life.

The principal cantillation mode used in this work, most prominently for the Al Hanisim motive, is a minor sounding mode similar to the sound of the white notes on a piano from D to D, with one major exception: the fourth degree is raised by a half-step, adding a characteristic augmented second to the scale. By the numbers it is: 1-2-b3-#4-5-6-b7-1. The mode is labeled with a variety of names: Mi Shebeirach, or Av Harachamim, or more commonly, “Ukrainian Dorian.”

For the record:  Steve Barnett’s arrangement of S’vivon appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.

Francis Poulenc:  Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël

Poulenc’s Christmas motets were written in 1951, when he was coming out of something of a creative funk. He had just completed his Stabat Mater and was feeling confident. The settings are less somber than his equally famous Lenten motets.

We are dividing the four Poulenc pieces into two sets of two—a pair in each half of the program. The first, “O magnum mysterium,” has a stark, almost creepy opening in the lower voices, over which a limpid, inspired soprano line floats:  Poulenc shows here a rare ability to combine awe, fear, reverence, and restraint. The second motet, “Quem vidistis, pastores?” is the question to the shepherds about what they have seen. Poulenc is attempting to tell a story in Latin, but the French accent on the last syllable seems to want to creep in regardless!

Shape-note hymn, arr. Wayland Rogers:  O Thou, Who By A Star

Born in Kentucky, Wayland Rogers has a terrific feel for shape-note tunes and their musical possibilities. This is a setting of the tune “Dunlap’s Creek” by Freeman Lewis, published first in the landmark collection Southern Harmony (1835). The music and its related songs stem in part from the spontaneous song-making at rural camp meetings during the Second Great Awakening (roughly 1800-1830).  Rogers captures the angularity of the tune and its vigorous rhythm.  Rather than offering a straight exposition of the harmonized tune, Rogers presents it first as a solo for the basses;  he then uses it in canon (a round), with each verse of the hymn adding a new voice part to the mix after the previous part has sung a measure of music. The culmination in the fourth verse has the voices all piling on one another only separated by a single beat, which provides some of the delightfully “crunchy” harmonies that one often finds in the original published songs.

For the record:  Wayland Rogers’ What Sweeter Music appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Christmas a cappella: Songs from Around the World.

Nestor Taylor:  A Cradle Song

A Greek by birth and Greek/English by musical training, Nestor Taylor has carved out a distinguished career as a composer of choral music in the English tradition as well as in other veins. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Yale studying composition in 2005-06. He currently serves as Artistic Advisor for the Greek National Opera. 

A Cradle Song is a beautiful, heartfelt setting of the famous poem by William Blake. Taylor seems to concentrate on the word “sweet” most of all, and the overall effect is truly that of a poignant, loving lullaby.

Spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris:  Children, Go Where I Send Thee

Robert L. Morris is one of the finest arrangers of spirituals and early gospel music active today. A resident of the Twin Cities, he most recently served as director of choral activities at Macalaster College, where he is now professor emeritus. He spent much of his early career in Chicago, where he absorbed a wide variety of musical styles, and he was an arranger for Duke Ellington. Morris has a keen ear for the small differences between forms of the spiritual and their characteristics (including the form called a “characteristic”!).

This song may have been considered dangerous because it taught slaves to count, which was something they were generally not supposed to know how to do. Clothed in “holy” text, the song gets up to ten before counting backwards again.  In Children, Go Where I Send Thee, Morris shows that, like Joseph Jennings, he is a master of the slow groove. Morris models his setting on the style of male gospel quartets, which combine smooth sailing with unexpected rhythmic accents.  He takes pain to note that, while this piece carefully incorporates elements of gospel music, it is first and foremost a spiritual.

For the record:  Robert L. Morris’s Children, Go Where I Send Thee as well as his arrangement of Glory To the Newborn King both appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.                                          


Trad. Swedish, arr. Nils Lindberg:  Den Signade Dag

Critic Seth Karlsson once described Nils Lindberg as a sort of musical knight, riding on the frontiers of music. “As his coat of arms he bears a triangle. One corner represents jazz, one symphonic works and one folk music.” Lindberg’s classical training has been combined with a lifetime of collaborations with jazz greats including Judy Garland and Josephine Baker, and he has done arrangements and recordings with Duke Ellington.

This tune Den Signade Dag comes from Äppelbö, a tiny town in the Dalarna region of Sweden, where Lindberg was born. The text and tune are simple, straightforward, and striking. Lindberg makes the tiniest harmonic inflections in the choral parts, which make an overall effect of mystery, hope, and deep feeling, all at the same time. 

For the record:  Nils Lindberg’s Shall I Compare Thee? appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD of the same name, a collection of works to Shakespeare texts..

Charles Garner:  He Sleeps

Charles Garner has been a church musician for more than 40 years in the Detroit area and has brought his mastery of African-American spiritual and gospel styles to this remarkable composition.  This new piece, subtitled “Lullaby of the Nativity,” carries both an original text and tune. Capturing some of the same themes of “Silent Night,” Garner creates a stately, (mostly) hushed mood of intense dignity and joy. The work manages to sound old—as if it has been around forever—while turning the ear in unexpected ways, especially with harmony,  that are completely new. (Thanks to Brian Streem and Betsy Grizzell for suggesting this piece for this program.)

Matthew Harris:  On This Starry Night

Based in New York City, Matthew Harris is a musicologist by training who makes his way in the world with a composer’s heart. He is perhaps best known for his five collections of Shakespeare Songs, of which Chicago a cappella has recorded  several on the Shall I Compare Thee? album.  Not one to be pigeonholed, he has an eclectic, engaging style of composing that is embraced by professional and amateur vocal ensembles alike.

It is clear that his musicologist’s training allows Harris to reproduce a given music style with great fidelity. With a mood that seems directly inspired by “Down To The River To Pray,” Harris has composed here a lively, vigorous new Christmas carol. This tune was created for the two choirs directed by the remarkable Charles Bruffy:  the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Bach Choir. Harris has captured the energy of down-home bluegrass harmony and folk hymns in a four-part arrangement that should have you sitting up straight in short order—and perhaps ready to pray yourself!

For the record:  Four of Matthew Harris’s Shakespeare Songs appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Shall I Compare Thee?: Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts.

Tim Sarsany:  Salve Mater Misericordiae

This lovely motet came to Chicago a cappella’s attention during recording sessions for Hinshaw Music, the piece’s publisher. Tim Sarsany has created a work of great beauty and reverence, with a subtle harmonic language and sense of melodic flow that echoes those of Maurice Duruflé. The opening in the tenors sounds like plainchant, though it really isn’t;  as is the case with He Sleeps, the composer manages to create something new that sounds old, well-seasoned, in the best sense.

Julio Domínguez:  Three Motets for Christmas

Julio Domínguez is the conductor of “Camerata ad libitum,” a choir in Pontevedra, Spain.  He is active as a workshop and festival leader and music publisher as well. These three Christmas motets are simple and effective, alternating female and male voices.

trad. Latvian, arr. Andrejs Jansons:  Two Latvian Carols

This is a pair of Latvian sleigh-riding carols. The first, “Ziemas svētki sabraukuši,” sets the mood nicely with a jingling rhythm evoking the trot of horses. The text features the repeated word “kaladū,” which is featured in many winter-solstice songs from Eastern Europe but whose exact meaning is unclear. The arranger himself suggests that it may be related to the Latin calendo, or “calendar.” The second song, “Balts sniedziņš snieg uz skujiņām,” is a more boisterous exclamation that basically says, “Christmas is coming and I’m really happy!”

from Francis Poulenc:  Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël

We now resume the Poulenc cycle to complete it with the last two movements. The third movement, “Videntes stellam,” is bright and cheery, with ringing major chords. While it shares some of the contemplative mood of the opening movement (“O magnum mysterium”), the overall feel here is of almost bracing openness and clarity—the sonic equivalent of what one might feel on one’s face while walking down Michigan Avenue on a sharp, crisp winter evening. By contrast, the final movement (“Hodie Christus natus est”) is a shout of sheer joy. C major is a clean-sounding key, and the rhythm is quick and boisterous;  Poulenc keeps shifting the meter from 4/4 to 3/4 and 5/4, as if he can’t quite make up his mind just how he wants to express how great it is that Jesus is finally here.  He gets the point across, to be sure;  apart from Sweelinck’s version from the early 17th century, there are few settings of this text that can match Poulenc’s ebullience.

arr. Walter Chase:  Christmas Can-Can

And now for something completely different…

The group known as Straight No Chaser started out at Indiana University in Bloomington as one of the thousands of American collegiate a cappella groups, with good singing, cute arrangements, strong stage presence and a loyal if modest following.  All of that changed when their YouTube video of a 1998 performance.  Their hilarious, extended, multicultural, multi-style version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” went viral in 2006, literally all over the world, with 11 million people seeing it. No matter that the medley had humbler origins, having been arranged by Richard Gregory in 1967 for the Williston Caterwaulers; the YouTube video in question was seen by the president of Atlantic Records, who offered Straight No Chaser a five-album deal if they would create a professional touring group and take their act on the road. The original collegiate group still exists on campus.  However, the professional act was launched and today is pursuing a vigorous schedule.

On December 22, 2008, SNC sang live on The Today Show, and their Holiday Spirits album hit #1 on the iTunes and sales charts. (They’re actually doing two shows at the Chicago Theatre on Dec. 11th, when we’re not performing, so we will allow you to go hear them too.)

This medley, “Christmas Can-Can,” is in a similar tongue-in-cheek vein, taking no prisoners as it romps through holiday songs you’ve probably heard before. Nods to multiculturalism will be perceptible to the attentive listener. Have fun!