Holidays a cappella:
Tales and Legends

December 2016

Program Notes

PROGRAM: Holidays a cappella: Tales and Legends (Dec. 2016)

Joy to the World!


arr. Philip Lawson

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow


Spiritual, arr. Roland Carter


* * * * * * *


Videntes stellam


Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)

The Cherry Tree Carol


Appalachian folk song, arr. Alice Parker

A la xacara xacarilla


Trad. Mexican, arr. Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (1590-1664)


* * * * * * *


Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl


Gelbart/Secunda, arr. Mark Zuckerman

Śliczna Panienka


Trad. Polish carol, arr. J. Michael Thompson



Trad. Latvian carol, arr. Juris Vaivods


* * * * * * *


Longfellow’s Carol


Jonathan Miller (b. 1962)

The Sycamore Tree


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)


* * * * * * *


Si no me dan de beber lloro


Vicente Carratini, arr. Jonathan Miller





Fum, fum, fum


Trad. Catalan, arr. Anne Heider


* * * * * * *


Najświętsza Panienka


Trad. Polish, arr. Jacek Sykulski


* * * * * * *


Ain’t Dat A-Rockin’ All Night?


Spiritual, arr. Paul Carey



Matisyahu, arr. Patrick Sinozich


* * * * * * *


Good King Wenceslas


13th-century melody with words by

John Mason Neale (1818-1866),

arr. Anne Heider

His piety and marvelous works

excerpt from

St. Nicolas

Benjamin Britten


* * * * * * *


Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus


arr. Jonathan Miller


Notes from the Artistic Director, Jonathan Miller

I love programming our “Holidays a cappella” concerts. It may have something to do with the fact that I usually do this in the fall, which is my favorite season. The days are getting shorter; the humidity of summer is gone; the angle of the sunlight outside my home-office window is headed to the south; and the oak leaves are piling up in the yard (which means a few hours of welcome outdoor exercise with Sandy and the dogs).


My job, which is now completed for this program, is to capture the essence of the season in about twenty songs. How does one do that? The December holidays are paradoxical. When we get to them, at least in Chicago, it’s usually dark and cold. You might ask, “And you want me to get perky and excited now, with all this holiday music?” Well, no, not really; as always, balance is the key. Yes, a judicious amount of upbeat-ness is in order, but so is contemplation; joy, but also quiet; praise, but also lullabies. I especially love our Polish carol in praise of hay – the lowly and humble hay in which Jesus was laid. What a wonderful image, so different from the usual ones in the American collective mind and media.


I have associated December with singing as long as I can recall—in the car on long trips, at camp, in worship services, you name it. In my family, we did not have a particularly materialistic mindset; my parents, especially my mother, were actively cultivating voluntary simplicity, which was gaining popularity in the 1960s. Joining the Chicago Children’s Choir in 4th grade was my initiation into the formal choral tribe; I hope that every child can have some experience that approximates the almost overwhelming awe, joy, and wonder that came from being a part of Christmas Vespers services at First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park. (I’m getting choked up just remembering it now.) That was one of my first experiences of the cup running over: a heart full to overflowing, so much that you’re not sure you can actually handle it—but you do, and your heart grows as a result. If we can give you even a taste of that sort of heart-ful-ness while you’re here with us today, we will be grateful.


Thank you for being here, and enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller, Founder and Artistic Director


Notes from the Guest Music Director, Anne Heider

Jonathan Miller and I were choral colleagues in the early 1980’s at Holy Name Cathedral. We were also original members of His Majestie’s Clerkes, now Bella Voce, the a cappella ensemble founded by countertenor Richard Childress, who also sang at Holy Name. Some ten years later Jonathan started his own group, Chicago a cappella.

As Artistic Director of His Majestie’s Clerkes, I invited Chicago a cappella to be a guest ensemble in concerts in 1994 and again in 1996, and both collaborations were artistically challenging and rewarding. Both ensembles have thrived and become Chicago-area institutions, treasured by their audiences and supporters. It’s an honor and a joy to be invited by Jonathan for a return engagement as Guest Music Director of “Holidays a cappella”.

Countless tales and legends have gathered around and grown out of the annual midwinter celebration of birth and rebirth. The darkest, coldest season of the year abounds in stories that give us light, warmth, and hope. The small human details—Joseph losing his temper, the peasant with a houseful of kids, the shivering pageboy—anchor us in a world we recognize; then we truly feel the miracle that awaits us in each story.

Songs celebrating the special foods and games of the season remind us of our childhood. Some, like the top in Little Dreidl, have acquired a symbolic significance that adds teaching value to the stories. Others, like Kalado and Si non me dan de beber, revel in the giddiness of house-to-house serenading, masquing, drinking and feasting:  the solstice has arrived! the days are getting longer and lighter! Songs extolling miraculous deeds by saints give us vivid narratives to help us understand saintliness. (Saint Nicolas is the champion in that regard, and Benjamin Britten folded seven different legends into one piece of music, piling them up one after another until our heads spin.)

The singers of Chicago a cappella have plunged with zest into this motley array of stories. They are alert, accomplished vocal artists; they’re open to repertoire of all sorts; they love getting the details right; and they nourish one another with their energy and delight in performing. I am privileged to have worked with them to bring you this eclectic program of holiday tales and legends.

—Anne Heider

Notes on the Music, By Jonathan Miller

G. F. Handel, arr. Philip Lawson:  Joy to the World
Yes, the composer of the Messiah also wrote Joy to the World!  At least the melody has been attributed to Handel. The familiar tune receives an unusually skillful treatment here in the hands of former King’s Singer Philip Lawson. The rhythm leaps off the page with a Scotch snap, and the lush six-part harmonies propel the piece forward.

Spiritual, arr. Roland Carter: Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Roland Carter is Holmberg Professor Emeritus of American Music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and currently director of the Chancel Choir at Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta. A former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, he is the arranger of the most commonly-heard version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Prof. Carter has been honored to participate musically in every possible setting, from working in the smallest church to conducting at presidential inaugurations in Washington. An outstanding musician, he has conducted opera as well as choral music nationwide and has been involved in radio and television broadcasts in his role as a preservationist of African-American music.

This setting of “Rise Up, Shepherd” follows mostly traditional voicings and harmonies. The piece is effective in its straightforward simplicity. The final chorus takes off in an energetic ascent, speeding up as it sets up a call-and-response dialogue between men and women before rising to the highest soprano heights for a strong finish.

Orlando di Lasso:  Videntes stellam
Lasso is usually mentioned in the same breath with Palestrina, as they were the two most important and influential musicians in the European High Renaissance. Lasso was born in what is now Belgium and went to Italy early in his career; one legend says he was kidnapped at age 12 because of his sweet singing voice. At age 23, he was hired at the Bavarian court in Munich—one of the best “gigs” for an active composer, with a fabulous choir and creative environment—and settled in there for the rest of his life, a stay of almost 40 years. While he worked for the Roman Catholic Church, he kept an open mind to what was happening musically elsewhere, including in Protestant lands. He wrote in every conceivable genre of sacred and secular music, and his music was disseminated all over Europe.

Lasso is known as a master of musical rhetoric—the art of using expressive techniques to communicate vividly. A few examples will show his level of skill and playfulness. The opening leap of a fifth and then an octave, which occurs in every voice part, literally forces the singers to look up (at least on the page, if not at the conductor or the audience) and sing upward in their vocal ranges—a clever and evocative way to set the opening words, “looking at the star.” There is a nice chromatic inflection at the words “et intrantes domum” (“upon entering the house”), perhaps signaling in music how special it must have been for the Magi to step into that place and encounter Jesus for the first time. Another attention-getting chord happens at the word “procidentes” (“bowing down”). Finally, in the second section, there is a long, florid melisma on the word “aurum” (“gold”), much as you or I might say “ooooooh” when seeing a treasure-trove like that.

Appalachian folk song, arr. Alice Parker:  The Cherry Tree Carol
One of the heroes of American choral music, Alice Parker is a living cultural treasure. After studying composition and performance at Smith College and choral conducting at Juilliard with Robert Shaw, she came to prominence in the 1950s as the chief arranger for the Robert Shaw Chorale, creating hundreds of settings of folksongs, hymns, and spirituals. Still active at age 91, she was in Chicago just last month for a marathon weekend of teaching and mentoring. She teaches composition and arranging with a special emphasis on melody. She continues to lead Melodious Accord, the New York City-based organization she founded in 1985.

Parker’s setting of “The Cherry Tree Carol” works with a version of melody collected from Appalachian Kentucky. The arrangement gives clear prominence to the tune, sung by a tenor soloist. After Jesus speaks to Joseph from the womb (still in the tenor’s voice), the cherry tree bows down so that Mary can gather fruit. The overall effect is gentle, tender, and direct.

Trad. Mexican, arr. Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla: A la xácara xacarilla
There is a wonderful tradition in Central and South America, stemming originally from Madrid, of xácaras or jácaras, rather raucous songs about Christmas as celebrated by regular people, that are intended for performance outside the context of the liturgical church service. You may recall one such piece from our 2012 program Navidad de Mexico; here is another. Born in Spain, Padilla came to Puebla, the “second city” of Mexico in the 1600s, where he eventually became maestro de capilla and where he was a prolific composer and arranger. In addition to more formal church polyphony, he provided this transcription of a xácara, complete with the usual elements: three-against-two rhythms (hemiola), verses with paired rhyming lines (coplas), and a chorus of onlookers shouting “¡vaya!” Hold the translation close by, and have fun as you listen to this one.

Mikhl Gelbart, arr. Mark Zuckerman: Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl (I am a little dreydl)
Mark Zuckerman is a New Jersey-based composer with a background in music theory and composition who has devoted many years to applying his skills to traditional Yiddish song. He has created dozens of arrangements, including rather religious songs and ranging all the way to a truly authentic, fully Yiddish rendition of Bay mir bistu sheyn.

This setting speaks mostly for itself, being quite sweet and funny.  Zuckerman has the lower three voices begin by singing the names of the sides of the dreydl, each of which has one of the four Hebrew letters nun, shin, hey, and gimel. Those four letters begin the four words “Nes gadol hayah sham,” translated as “A great miracle happened there”—the miracle of the oil in the Temple lasting for eight nights.

Trad. Polish carol, arr. J. Michael Thompson: Śliczna Panienka 
The traditional Polish tune has been set for choir by J. Michael Thompson, a beloved choral director and arranger who from 1988 to 1999 was the director of music at St. Peter’s in the Loop on Madison Street in downtown Chicago. Thompson is also founder of the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle, a professional ensemble which has recorded prolifically. An expert in Orthodox liturgy, music, and language, and a noted authority on chant, he is ordained as an Eastern Orthodox priest. In 2001 he moved to the Pittsburgh to be professor of liturgical chant at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius and cantor/director of music at the Byzantine Cathedral there, posts he held for several years. He remains active as a composer, author, and editor.

This gentle, rocking carol in 3/4 time tells of the humble hay (siano) in which Jesus was laid. Thompson gives the setting great sweetness and tenderness, drawing our attention to something so ordinary that we usually ignore it.

Trad. Latvian carol, arr. Juris Vaivods: Kaladō
As we learn from ethnographer Christina Jaremko-Porter, a kaladō is a song from Latvia, the small country on the Baltic Sea, sung to celebrate the winter solstice.  The repeated word “kaladō” seems sort of like the word “Noel!” in other carols; here, the bouncy rhythm evokes the movement of a sleigh through the snow. In Latvian custom, mummers (ritual dancers) in a group (kopa) drag the Yule log through the village from household to household at the end of the work-day on the farm. On December 21st, a Yule log is dragged through the old town of Riga, the Latvian capital, with many receptions held featuring traditional songs and refreshments. In this respect, the Latvian processions seem similar to the Puerto Rican parranda, about which we’ll sing a bit later.  The lyrics here seem to bring us into the mind of one of the revelers, who is trying to figure out how generous (or not) to be with the neighbors.

Jonathan Miller:  Longfellow’s Carol
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Boston-based poet of the mid-1800s, was an ardent pacifist and abolitionist during the Civil War. He and his fellow abolitionist-pacifists lamented any loss of life on either side as they fought their own wars of public opinion on behalf of enslaved African-Americans. The poet begins this carol text joyously, by hearing Christmas bells proclaiming peace on earth; however, his happiness is dashed by the “accursed” cannonballs thundering forth from cannons in the Southern states, where the war is being waged.

Jonathan Miller writes: “Sometimes, composing a single piece can go on for weeks or even months. At other times, it happens in a flash. When I was thumbing through a book of carols by Oxford University Press, looking for tunes for a concert, the Longfellow text jumped out at me. I had not known it before. It virtually stood up and demanded of me, as poems sometimes do, a new musical setting. When the book stays open to a page like that, there is no resisting; in this case, before the evening was over, the piece was done. The fourth verse in particular needs to be read with extreme sensitivity, to understand something important: Longfellow is not cursing anyone with black skin in his phrase ‘black accursed mouth,’ but rather the cannons made of black iron, from the mouths of which the terrible cannonballs are fired. Longfellow seems to have a way to shake us out of our complacency and awaken our compassion. His poetry unlocked, as I like to say, the key to my heart, which is the only way I know how to write a new piece of music.”

Benjamin Britten: The Sycamore Tree
This is an early work by Britten, which he wrote in 1930 when he was 16 and revised for publication in 1967, a decade or so before his death. It’s a rather unusual setting of a familiar text, “I saw three ships,” taken from English folk traditions. There is something bracing and fresh about this music, with a strong individual stamp unlike any other carol. The music may take its inspiration from the opening verse, “I looked me out upon the sea.” The rhythm is vigorous, the melody rather wavy, and the ending like a blast of sea air that comes when you’re standing on the ship’s prow.

Puerto Rican carol, arr. J. Miller: Si no me dan de beber lloro
The song draws on the Puerto Rican tradition of parranda, which involves going door-to-door, surprising people and grabbing them to join in the caroling, and staying up singing into the wee hours of the night. In Puerto Rico as in Mexico and many other countries, the primary holiday celebration of the birth of Jesus is not on December 25th but on January 6th, the festival of the three wise men or los tres Reyes (Epiphany). The sentiment of Si no me dan de beber lloro is basically as follows: “Come on out with us and sing, and let’s have a drink while we sing!” In fact, the last verse is a traditional Puerto Rican toast. This song, originally by Vicente Carratini, is so popular that it has the status of a folk song in Puerto Rico. It has amazing energy. Of course, since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, you shouldn’t really be all that surprised to find a reference to Santa Claus in one of the verses.


Catalan carol, arr. Anne Heider:  Fum, fum, fum
This is a lively tune from Catalonia (the autonomous part of northeastern Spain that borders France) in a fun arrangement by Anne Heider. There is not much documentation about this song, but it has become a holiday staple, even in English-speaking countries, partly because the short refrain is so appealing.

“Fum, fum, fum” is a Catalan kind of “fa la la,” coming in the middle and at the end of each verse. Heider’s setting moves the melody around to all the voice parts. The “shepherds” in verse 2 are taken by the men, and in verse 4 there is a mini-fugue of sorts, with the parts each singing the melody in turn in a compressed round.

Trad. Polish, arr. Jacek Sykulski:  Najświętsza Panienka
This remarkable piece comes to us from arranger Jacek Sykulski, director of a boys’ choir in Poznan, a city in western Poland that is the country’s third main cultural city, after Warsaw and Kraków. He has arranged melodies of many centuries and styles. He sent this one to us when we asked him for some traditional Polish music, but what an arrangement! It combines elements of Middle Eastern song, in a Jewish-sounding mode, with a Bolero-like rhythmic underpinning in the lower parts, all the while preserving the original melody collected in Poland.

Jacek Sykulski writes: “I found this piece at the beginning of the year 2000, as far as I remember in an old carol songbook. Looking for something for my choir I found this melody, with which I fell in love immediately. This theme was different from most other tunes; that's why it made my interest. Today I know, the melody was notated by Oskar Kolberg, a very famous Polish ethnographer, folklorist, and composer, who lived in the 19th century. It probably was a part of ‘Christmas dramas’. I wanted to not just arrange, but tell the story about a young Jewish woman, looking for a proper place to give birth to Jesus. Quite a dramatic story. So, in short, this was the idea for this setting.”

Spiritual, arr. Paul Carey: Ain’t Dat A-Rockin’ All Night?
Paul Carey, whose settings of spirituals have become some of our favorites, found this tune on one of Odetta’s Christmas albums from the 1960s. The title might fool you into thinking that this is a raucous, driving song, but it’s just the opposite. Carey manages to enhance the folk melody with just enough harmonic dress to provide comfort and beauty, while keeping the setting elegantly simple, allowing the melody itself to blossom toward the end.

Matisyahu, arr. Patrick Sinozich: Miracle
“Matisyahu” is the stage name for Matthew Paul Miller, who, despite his recent shift away from orthodoxy, remains the world’s leading Jewish reggae artist. This song joyously celebrates the miracle of Chanukah as well as the more common miracle of faith: “Bound to stumble and fall / but my strength comes not from man at all.” This setting was created for Chicago a cappella by Music Director Emeritus Patrick Sinozich.

John Mason Neale, arr. Anne Heider: Good King Wenceslas (world premiere)
Music Director Anne Heider created this arrangement for these performances. She takes an inventive and most expressive approach to the material. Parallel fourths abound, not an interval series one hears often; these give her setting an archaic sort of sound, reminiscent of medieval composers like Landini. Pay especially close attention to the treatment of the verse starting “Sire, the night is darker now” – there is some fine word-painting here.

Benjamin Britten:  His Piety and Marvelous Works (from Saint Nicolas, A Cantata)
In 1948, Britten and his partner Peter Pears teamed up for the premiere of this cantata, written for Pears’ old secondary boarding school in Sussex. Britten took the story of the 4th-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, told in a libretto by Eric Crozier, and set it for tenor solo, chorus, treble semi-chorus, and simple chamber instrumentation including percussion that can be handled by one professional and a cast of amateurs.

This excerpt is the eighth movement, with a text consisting of a series of miracles that St. Nicolas performed, followed by a cascading melody, sung like a round, to the text “Let the legends that we tell / Praise him with our prayers as well.” Anne Heider has adapted the music for a cappella performance to round off our journey of tales and legends.

arr. Jonathan Miller: Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus
Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus received more than 30,000 YouTube hits in the first six weeks following its 2011 premiere by Chicago a cappella. Despite its dubious stature as a choral hit, it has attracted conductors around the world and had more than three dozen performances in Australia, Germany, Canada, several places in the UK, and all over the USA, prior to its 2105 publication by Hal Leonard. 
Jonathan Miller writes: “The idea for this arrangement came while I was whizzing down the Eisenhower Expressway on a beautiful summer day. I was thinking about Christmas music, as choral conductors always do in July. I was in a happy and open mood, and wanting to find something a little bit goofy for our holiday closer, and then it floated into my head: ‘Could you actually switch the words to Jingle Bells and the Hallelujah Chorus and make it work?’ I went home and got out a pencil and my sketchbook, where I try to wrestle some of my musical ideas to the ground. First, I wrote down the words to both songs to see if the line breaks were at least in rough correspondence. It worked, fortunately. I threw in a brief modulation and transition to piece the two songs together, and there it was. (My wife and I giggled for hours at the way ‘Hallelujah’ became ‘in a one-horse...’) This is a song better simply heard than described. Hang on, and—as we like to say in rehearsal—see you at the double bar.”