Holidays a cappella

December 2014

Program Notes

Annua gaudia

J. David Moore (b. 1962)

I wonder as I wander

John Jacob Niles, arr. Steve Pilkington

Go where I send thee

spiritual, arr. Uzee Brown


We Three Kings

trad., arr. Chris Hutchings

There is no rose

Howard Helvey (b. 1968)

Funky Dreidl

Gelbart/Secunda, arr. Robert Applebaum

                                         From "Three Pieces for Chanukah"


Three Carol-Anthems

Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Here is the little door

A spotless rose

Sing Lullaby


Christmastime is Here

Vince Guaraldi, arr. Deke Sharon

Convidando está la Noche

Juan García de Zespedes (1619-1678)


From the Nutcracker Suite:

P.I. Tchaikovsky, arr. Jeff Funk

Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

Waltz of the Flowers


Lo Yisa Goy

Hebrew melody, arr. Stacy Garrop

Ain't Dat a-rockin' All Night?

spiritual, arr. Paul Carey

Boh sja razhdaje

trad. Ukranian, arr. James Clemens

Ave Maria

Franz Biebl (1906-2001)


Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus

James Pierpont/G.F. Handel, arr. Jonathan Miller
encore: Behold That Star arr. R. Isaac


We do a lot of advance planning at Chicago a cappella. Therefore, I am writing these notes in mid-September, when the sun is still bright on my backyard deck, the leaves are still green, the fall equinox is a week off, and the dogs are chasing fat, green acorns in the driveway. Kids are back in school; there is a little nip in the nighttime air; the mosquitoes and cicadas are slowing down. While we have had lows in the 40s already, it is nevertheless a day of glorious autumn weather. Sandy and I today enjoyed the last of our tomatoes from the little garden that we share with our neighbors.

In our annual cycle of Chicago’s natural world, we all probably have ways that we mark the passing of time. Summer has a sort of static quality to me, a sort of big block of warm and hot and mostly muggy air, when everything’s deep green and it sometimes feels like it could go on forever, except that of course this is Chicago and so change must come. I usually start to sense the beginning of the end of summer around the middle of August, when the days, though still quite warm, become palpably shorter than the 5:00am-to-9:30pm sunshine that we enjoy at midsummer. And as I am proofreading these notes in mid-November, it’s 13 degrees.

My birthday arrives at the end of August, and I have always loved fall the best. Sandy and I work at a homeless shelter one night a month between May and September, and at last night’s shift it was really quite cold. We were grateful to not have to turn anyone away, as we have had to do most weekends this summer; serving there is always a reminder that we have people, very near to us, who have far from plenty. We always go home counting our blessings.

Counting blessings is an annual ritual for me when I do exactly this: I sit down to write the introduction to our Holidays a cappella program. First and foremost to mention is the fact that Chicago a cappella actually exists. It is a blessing that a young man of about thirty years old could decide to form a new vocal ensemble, with a lot of enthusiasm from singers hungry for a great ensemble experience, which is what happened in 1993 when we first began. It is a blessing that, 21 years later, thousands of people now come to hear us every year in December, to share the beauty that these unbelievably talented singers make, under such skilled direction, so that the joy of the season can radiate out from our hearts into yours. It is a blessing that we a have a staff and board, individual and institutional donors, who are passionate about what we do, so that it can all keep going. I am astonished sometimes at the simple fact that we are still here. What a blessing.

I was taught from a young age that we all have a little piece of God inside us. The Quakers call it the Inner Light. I like that image so much. The ten inner lights of our singers on stage are focused and concentrated today in such a way that, in a sort of magic, alchemical reaction, the combined quality of light (and sound) is far, no, immeasurably greater than the sum of the individual lights. I believe that this is the magic of choral singing. Not only is choral singing beautiful, but there is also a primal quality of shared utterance to it: think about it. Where else in your life, other than perhaps the national anthem at a sporting event, do people come together and utter the same words at the same time? Seriously, when do we ever do that anymore, except at a blessing before or after a meal, or in a religious service or rock concert? Why do you think people get so weepy when the whole audience of A Prairie Home Companion sings one of the old hymns? It is that same quality of wonder that comes from shared utterance. One in ten Americans sings in some sort of chorus, so it’s clearly something we need to do. I wonder how it is on other planets, if they do more choral singing than we do here.

Anyway, back to counting blessings. How do the songs on our concert help us to count? The spiritual, “Go where I send thee,” reminds us that there are twelve things to count as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have three kings, three carol-anthems by the British master Herbert Howells, six songs that are brand-new to our ensemble, and nine candles on the menorah. We have the words of the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of the promised day to come, when we shall know no war any more. We have hundreds of you with us today. You are in a nice, warm space with other like-minded people. Please take a moment to turn to someone whom you don’t know, and extend a warm greeting of welcome to him or her. Then, when you read the next headline about some horrible thing that has happened in the world, you will know that you at least connected with one new person, and that is part of what will keep this planet whole.

Thank you for blessing us with your presence, and enjoy the program.

Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director


J. David Moore: Annua Gaudia

We begin with a joyful processional, Annua Gaudia, which sounds very old but is not. The composer, J. David Moore, is active in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and his music is always fresh and full of life. His song When I Rise Up was a centerpiece of Chicago a cappella’s program Spirit, Breath, Voice in February 2013. The lively Annua Gaudia was written for our wonderful colleagues in the Rose Ensemble. Moore uses here a text in honor of St. James (Santiago), which comes from the famous 12th-cenutry manuscript known as the Codex Calixtinus. Santiago was and is the inspiration for the famous Spanish cathedral and pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela. With a combination of great rhythmic pulse and sensitivity to text, Moore brings us a piece that lingers in the ear long after the song is over.

John Jacob Niles, arr. Steve Pilkington: I Wonder as I Wander

This much-loved tune is partly traditional and partly composed. The “original” melody for this carol was pieced together by John Jacob Niles from three lines which he cajoled out of a young girl in 1933, in Murphy, North Carolina (the mountainous far west of the state, in the Appalachians). Niles paid Annie Morgan twenty-five cents per performance; after eight tries, he notes, “I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea.” He fleshed out the melody and wrote additional verses, first recording the song in 1938 on a 78-rpm disc for RCA Red Seal. The melody has found an exquisite home in this a cappella choral setting by Steve Pilkington, who is associate professor and chair of several departments at the acclaimed Westminster Choir College (Rider University) in Princeton, New Jersey.

For the record: Steve Pilkington’s “I Wonder as I Wander” appears on our CD Christmas a cappella.

spiritual, arr. Uzee Brown: Go Where I Send Thee

This tune has been arranged many times, including the setting by Robert L. Morris, recorded by Chicago a cappella. That version was more in a gospel-quartet style; this one is more stately, quite energetic, and a terrific expression of the lyrics. This was originally a song that, because of its religious content, masked another purpose, namely giving enslaved Africans the ability to develop the skill of counting numbers, something normally forbidden by slaveowners. Uzee Brown, who did this setting, is chairman of the voice department of Morehouse College in Atlanta as well as the choir director of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. He has a lifetime of superb achievement as a composer and arranger. He captures well the joy and excitement of seeing the baby born in Bethlehem.

For the record: An arrangement of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” by Robert Leigh Morris appears on our CD Holidays a cappella Live.

traditional, arr. Chris Hutchings: We Three Kings

Chris Hutchings hails from Edinburgh, Scotland. Although a young man, he is receiving commissions now from choirs on both sides of the Atlantic. Chicago a cappella did his In the Bleak Midwinter at last year’s holiday concerts, and it was an audience and singer favorite. His Requiem is forthcoming on CD this year. His style is relaxed yet confident, as is evident here in We Three Kings. This setting brings us just a few inflections of chords that cause us to hear the tune in a new way. Any time that a composer can bring on the reaction that says, “Oh, that is lovely and different, but familiar,” we can consider the arrangement a success. The “weird” verse is the one that sings of bitter myrrh: the chords are indeed jarring for a few moments, but then Hutchings clears out the texture to just a duet, which allows for a musical palate-cleansing of sorts, before returning to more familiar materials for the close.

Howard Helvey: There Is No Rose

A medieval English poem in honor of the Virgin Mary, There Is No Rose has been set to music many times between the 15th century and today. Howard Helvey’s recent version incorporates much of what makes his style special: a lyrical melody in (mostly) the soprano line, beautifully undergirded with supple, sensitive harmonies and counterpoint in the lower voices; a gentle sense of rhythm that propels the music forward while keeping the overall sense of tranquility intact; a propulsion to a powerful, dramatic high point; and a return to a refrain that provides great repose. These qualities drew us early on to Helvey’s work O Lux Beatissima, which we have recorded and performed often.

In this text, the “rose” refers to Mary herself. Originally, the text was in Middle English, so that “such virtue” was “swych vertu.” The short Latin interpolations cap off each verse in a charming way; they remind us also that Latin was the primary literary language of medieval England, before Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries and removed most Latin from the liturgy.

For the record: Howard Helvey’s “O Lux Beatissima” appears on our CD Christmas a cappella.

Gelbart/Secunda, arr. Robert Applebaum: Funky Dreidl
(from “Three Pieces for Chanukah”)

During his time in Chicago, Bob Applebaum taught math and science at New Trier High School while maintaining an active life as a composer and (mostly jazz) pianist. He was musician-in-residence at JRC, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston, where he wrote much liturgical music. He has specialized more recently in choral music and continues that excellent work from northern California, where he now lives.

Three Pieces for Chanukah is a cycle that includes “Or Chanukah/Y’mei Chanukah” and “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”). Funky Dreidl is the rollicking finale to the cycle, with the basses laying down a sort of slap-bass line reminiscent more of George Clinton than Sholom Secunda. The song is playful and jubilant, riffing on the familiar melody and words in clever and appealing ways.

The words that you’ll hear over and over again, “Neis Gadol haya sham,” are the words pointed to by the four Hebrew letters on the dreidl, the little top that is spun on Chanukah by children in a game. They refer to the miracle of the oil in the temple, which burned for eight nights when it had seemed that there was only enough oil to last a single night.

For the record: Robert Applebaum’s “Funky Dreidl” appears on our CD Holidays a cappella Live.

Herbert Howells: Three Carol-Anthems

Herbert Howells is a composer whose works are beloved by choirs all over the English-speaking world and beyond. He studied with the great teachers Charles Villiers Stanford (a superb composer in his own right, whose The blue bird is one of the best British choral pieces ever written) and Charles Wood at the Royal College of Music, and Stanford was his champion. Howells took gravely ill at age 20 and was not expected to survive; exempted from military service, he wrote steadily during The Great War (while his classmates were dying overseas) and was given a position assisting R.R. Terry in editing the huge trove of Tudor-era Latin polyphony that Terry’s choir was reviving at Westminster Cathedral. This immersion in Renaissance music had a strong influence on Howells, who wrote his Three Carol-Anthems around this time (1918-20), although the majority of his output during this period was chamber and orchestral music. Patrick Russill has suggested that the Three Carol-Anthems are the first of Howells’s choral works to ‘consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period...’ 

The best known of these three songs, A Spotless Rose, has an unlikely genesis. The poem is in medieval English. Howells wrote the music after spending time at a loud railroad station, of all places, as he later recalled in an interview:

"This [A Spotless Rose] I set down and wrote after idly watching some shunting from the window of a cottage....which overlooked the Midland Railway [in Gloucester]. In an upstairs room I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol-to-Gloucester railway line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging. I wrote it and dedicated it to my mother – it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else."

This rail-yard environment is completely at odds with the placid, fluid, virtually perfect music that Howells wrote on the 14th-century text to the Virgin Mary. As with the earlier song on this concert, There is no rose, the “rose” here again is a metaphor for Mary. One can almost hear and feel a gentle, caressing breeze blowing through the room as this song is performed; few other pieces in the choral repertoire have similar effect. 

The other two “bookends” are well crafted, if a bit less spectacularly rendered.  Here is the little door sets a poem by Francis Chesterton, who was the wife of poet G.K. Chesterton. She loved Christmas, a theme that pervades all of her poetic and dramatic writing; she is best known for the poem, “How Far is it to Bethlehem?” Sing Lullaby is based on poem by F. W. Harvey, who, like Howells, was from Gloucestershire and shared the composer’s affinity for the natural world.

Vince Guaraldi, arr. Deke Sharon: Christmastime is Here

On December 9, 1965, the cartoon special A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time on CBS television. It did well in the ratings, trailing only Bonanza that week. The soundtrack from the cartoon special has become one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time, being honored in 2012 by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance to America.  Included on the soundtrack was this song, “Christmastime is Here,” with children’s voices supplied by the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, just north of San Francisco in Marin County.

Jazz pianist and arranger Vince Guaraldi had been a fixture on the Bay Area scene. After his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became a hit on San Francisco airwaves, he was contacted by TV producer Lee Mendelson, who was hoping to create a documentary about Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. (Dave Brubeck declined to participate.) The famous “Linus and Lucy” theme song—what most people think of as “Peanuts music”—was originally written for that documentary. However, after none of the networks were interested in airing the documentary, there was a lull of a few months. At that point, the ad agency for Coca-Cola called Mendelson, saying that Coke wanted to be part of an animated Christmas special. Mendelson contacted Schulz, who jumped on the project, and the Guaraldi tunes now had new life and purpose. Guaraldi took his all-instrumental soundtrack and added “Christmastime is Here” to have something sung on the album. The album’s success marked the first time in history that a jazz musician created a gold record. We present the new a cappella arrangement by Deke Sharon, originally scored for men’s voices and made famous more recently by the hilarious men’s group Straight No Chaser.

Juan García de Zéspedes (1619-1678): Convidando está la noche

Born in Mexico, García was an accomplished musician. He studied in Puebla with Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and succeeded Gutiérrez in 1670 as maestro de capilla of Puebla Cathedral. This is probably García’s best-known piece, a joyous song that has contrasting slow and fast sections. The slow sections are more serious, with lyrics that evoke a traditional image of the newborn infant. The fast sections are marked “Duo guaracha,” indicating a zippy style of music that might typically have instruments playing along (the guaracha is a musical style now closely associated with Cuba). The overall effect is sort of like a situation where a hymn alternates with a jam session.

P. I. Tchaikovsky, arr. Jeff Funk: from the Nutcracker Suite

1. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy
2. Waltz of the Flowers

Around the year 2000, the inventive composer Jeff Funk decided to create an a cappella version of the Nutcracker Suite.  With clever syllables (such as “plum” to indicate a pizzicato in the strings), he pulls off the desired effects beautifully.

Hebrew folksong, arr. Stacy Garrop: Lo Yisa Goy

In our fifteenth season, we commissioned Chicago composer Stacy Garrop to write two pieces, and she chose Jewish texts for both of them: Hava Nagila and Lo Yisa Goy.  Both works have become ensemble and audience favorites since their premieres, and we have recorded both. Her superb command of musical material is evident throughout this piece, which includes several variants of the folk melody and a masterful sequence of moments of tension and release. The text, from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, calls for peace so sorely needed in our world, and the ending is one of the most perfectly created conclusions to any work in the a cappella repertory.

For the record: Stacy Garrop’s “Lo Yisa Goy” appears on our CD Christmas a cappella.

spiritual, arr. Paul Carey: Ain’t Dat a-Rockin’ All Night?

Paul Carey writes: “This is another tune that I first heard on folk singer Odetta’s classic Christmas album from the early 1960’s. The very lyrical first two verses set up the arrival of the chorus, which is the ‘main event’ and which eventually takes over the piece with its gently swaying syncopations.”

trad. Ukrainian, arr. James Clemens: Boh sja razhdaje

Sailing into the Baltic Sea and turning southward, we find ourselves in Ukraine, which, despite its recent turmoil, is home to a wonderful culture, which includes the jubilant carol Boh sja razhdaje (God now is born here). We have done this carol before in English; it is good to return to the original Ukrainian. Several of our singers have sung a cappella liturgies at the Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha in Ukrainian Village, and it is quite something to have an entire large church packed with people in fur coats all singing “Tut zhe, tut zhe, tut zhe tut zhe tut.” We hope that you’ll get some of that flavor when we sing it. The arrangement is by James Clemens, a composer formerly of the Chicago area who now resides in Virginia.

For the record: James Clemens’ “Boh sja razhdaje” appears on our CD Holidays a cappella Live.

Franz Biebl: Ave Maria

Another unexpected origin for a beloved carol, this time from Dr. Wilbur Skeels, who published some of the other works by Franz Biebl:

Herr Biebl told me that when he was organist/choirmaster and teacher in the Fürstenfeldbruck [Catholic] parish near Munich he had in his church choir a fireman. It was common for companies, factories, police and fire departments, etc. to sponsor an employees’ choir, which often would participate in choral competitions and festivals with other similar choirs. This fireman asked Biebl to please compose something for his fireman’s choir for such an occasion. The result was the Ave Maria (double male choir version).

Almost nobody in Germany paid any attention to the piece. However, Biebl became head of choral programs for Bavarian state radio, and he started inviting American choirs to come to Munich and sing on the radio and with other German choirs. The Cornell University Glee Club became aware of the Ave Maria and brought it back to the US. The recording by Chanticleer put it on the charts, so to speak, and the Germans then realized that they had neglected a masterpiece.

The text is unique in the way it combines two prayers. First is the “Angelus,” a prayer that is said three times a day in traditional Catholic liturgy. It contains a threefold “Hail Mary,” for which Biebl substitutes the traditional “Ave Maria, gratia plena...” text. The song retains the original structure of the Angelus: an introductory versicle based on the Gospel, followed by a concluding versicle and prayer. The closing words are likewise a substitution, using the end of the “Ave Maria” in place of the end of the Angelus. The overall effect nevertheless has great coherence, and it feels like a prayer we should have been singing all our lives!

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 choral conductors around the world and has had more than three dozen performances in Australia, Germany, Canada, several places in the UK, and all over the USA.  The largest choir to date has been the Encore Creativity ensemble, which amassed more than 250 seniors at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in December 2012, with the composer in attendance, grinning from ear to ear.

Jonathan Miller writes: “The idea for this arrangement came while I was whizzing down the Eisenhower Expressway one day 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...”) As with Hoss Brock’s legendary arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody, 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.”