Holidays a cappella

December 2019

Program Notes

“Because they happen every year, it’s possible to become bored with the holidays. (A person can hear “Winter Wonderland” too many times.)” So wrote David Remnick in The New Yorker in 2018. As a church musician I can attest to the very real possibility of hearing or playing O Little Town of Bethlehem one too many times. But the truth is, the season brings with it some ineffable quality that continually surprises. In this 27th season of Chicago a cappella I hope you find joy and renewal in these melodies, ancient and modern, and that in some way you are surprised at what you hear.

Paul Nicholson, Programmer and Music Director


NOTES ON THE MUSIC by Paul Nicholson

Plainchant, Mode 2Dominus dixit ad me

A long time ago, in a monastery far, far away … you take your place in the silent, freezing chapel, up front near the altar so as to avoid the draft from the door. It is dark outside; sunrise is at least six hours away. A few candles are burning here and there in the niches, side altars, and on the great altar. Your neighbors from the village crowd around you, standing, shuffling, bundled against the cold. If there was more light you could see your breath. And then it begins; a single voice intones – dixit Dominus ad me – and as the procession begins, the monks, singing their solemn introit, enter into the first day of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. 


Noe, Noe! 

Jean Mouton (c. 1459–1522)


Joyful, exuberant, rhythmic, nuanced. This is one for the books, being something of a miracle that it not only survived the centuries but was included in several contemporary publications at a time when anything printed had a short shelf-life. Mouton knew what he was doing as a composer, giving his ideas a lilt and graceful gesture. Bonus: when next you find yourself at trivia night, and are asked, “What successful Renaissance composer was also a priest and an apostolic notary?”, you will exclaim, “Jean Mouton, of course!”


Three Pieces for Chanukah

Robert Applebaum (b. 1941)

1. Oh Chanukah / Y’mei Hachanukah

Robert Applebaum comments: Many will be more familiar with the first line in English reading, “Oh Chanukah, oh Chanukah, come light the menorah.” Technically, the menorah is different from the candelabrum used for Chanukah. The correct term for Chanukah candelabrum is “chanukiah” as reflected in the words of this setting. 

2. Maoz Tzur

A sturdy melody, not unlike chant, masterfully treated with subtle text painting. The distinctive opening phrase with descending then ascending fourths, first sung by the men, then passed back and forth between the sections, rhythmically varied, now with augmentation, now in diminution, rising and falling, arriving in a house of prayer, complete, quietly confident, the last word heard in a rich, vibrant, B-flat major. 

3. Funky Dreidl / I Had a Little Dreidl

In his preface, Bob writes: The four faces of the dreidl are inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hehand shin. In the game, each represents a particular gambling term related to Yiddish words – Nun = nischt = nothing, i.e. take nothing; Gimmel = gantz = all, i.e. take all; Heh = halb = half, i.e. take half; Shin = shtel = put in, i.e. put two objects into the pot. However, the letters have been reinterpreted in the context of the holiday as “Neis gadol hayah sham” or a “great miracle happened here.”


What was the miracle? Historically, Chanukah marks the successful revolt of Judah the Maccabee against the Hellenistic Syrian occupation forces around 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent rededication of the Temple. A story associated with this rededication is that there was only enough sacramental oil to burn for a day, but that miraculously, it lasted eight days. Some, however, would suggest that the Maccabean victory over the Syrians was miracle enough!  


Noel Canon

Medieval carol, arr. Steven Sametz (b. 1954)


If I was a stickler for terminology, I would feel compelled to point out that strictly speaking, a canon has each entering voice or instrument performing the exact material of the previous voice or instrument; in other words, everyone keeps moving on to new material. Unlike a round where every voice or instrument simply keeps repeating their line until the end. Today if you follow any one of the men as they sing, you will (with shock & dismay?) realize they are repeating the same line, over and over, layer upon layer. Thus, it is not only appropriate, but accurate to say this is a round. Of course, I would only mention this if I was a stickler for terminology, which I am not.


Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (Whence is that goodly fragrance?)

Traditional French carol, arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015)


I never studied a lick of French in school. Growing up in a Lutheran pastor’s household, it was the German high road or nothing for this kid from Iowa. But I remember how utterly entrancing the language of this carol was to me, and how my limited (and pejorative) understanding of the word ‘odor’ was turned on its head. Willcocks’ setting originally began with an organ introduction, so this evening the singers double as both keyboard and choir. 



Nigh Bethlehem

Alfred Burt (1920-1954)


Something I did not know until writing these notes is that, outside of his family circle, Burt heard only one of his carols (Come, Dear Childrenperformed in public during his lifetime. My introduction to Nigh Bethlehem (composed in 1942) was through the album Christmas by The Singers Unlimited, released in 1972. It is charming in its simplicity and equally direct in its message of hope and joy. 


Al Hanisim (For the Miracles)

Joshua Fishbein (b. 1984)


A second liturgical text on this program (the first being the Plainchant sung at the beginning), this prayer of thanksgiving relates to the stories of Chanukah and Purim. It is delightful to hear this setting; a strong, declamatory, C-minor gesture listing miracles, redemption, mighty deeds, and saving acts; then a repetition of these four now in F-major, legato and leisurely; then a grandiose return to the four in C-minor, and now, only at the end, a hushed, pianissimo for the words “bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh” – in those days at this season.



I am a Little Dreydl (Ikh bin a kleyner dreidl)

Mikhl Gelbart (1889-1962), arr. by Mark Zuckerman


I can’t help but think the twirling, sixteenth-note figure heard throughout is an allusion to the spinning, teetering dreydl as it moves about the game. A perfect foil to the oom-pah of the bass, these two figures provide a playful backdrop to the traditional melody. 


Silent Night

Franz Gruber (1787-1863), arr. Malcolm Sargent


When one programs one must always grapple with the question of endings: go out with a bang or a sigh? In my youth I was much more prone to the bang-effect. Now, I have mellowed a bit and am comfortable with the less-is-more approach. Sargent’s harmonies wrap around the melody, cloud-like, enfolding and peaceful. 





Winter Welcome 

Patrick Sinozich


Patrick’s office is across the hall from mine at St. Clement Church, and as we are both inclined to leave the door ajar, a great deal of cross-pollination occurs. Not too long ago, while we were solving all the problems of the world, I mentioned my quest for a second-half opener for Holidays a cappella, something high-octane and brisk. Patrick said he had just the ticket and proceeded to pull out of his hat the Winter Welcome you are about to enjoy. The piece was originally composed for the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, which he directed for 18 years, and Patrick has created a new mixed-voice version especially for these performances.  I am still uncertain where (or if) the basses are finding a place to breathe. 


Carol of the Bells

Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921), arr. Paul Langford


Paul indicates at the top page of his score: quarter-note = 185. That’s 185 beats per minute. (Most commercial Billboard songs range between 118 – 122 bpm.So, it’s safe to say these bells are ringing wildly, with Paul’s creative handling of the ostinato folk-tune…


In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells – 

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”


Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Hugh Martin (1914  2011) arr. by Robert Convery


It’s a good thing Judy Garland weighed in about the original lyrics, criticizing the less-than-hopeful

feelings Hugh Martin penned for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. One example from

the original: “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” was rewritten to:

“Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” In 1957 Frank Sinatra

also asked for a revision of “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The new line

arrived “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Who can even imagine the song now

without the beloved words we know?


Jingle a cappella  

James Pierpont (1822-1893), arr. James Clemens  


If you need a little Christmas (Oratorio), this is the closest thing to a Bach-fix you’re going to get today. James Clemens lovingly disassembles Jingle Bells, pouring it into an 18th century fugal mold, with the harmonic idioms of mid-20th century jazz, and baked in a hot oven swinging at 7/8. Voilá! Dessert is served.



Matisyahu (b. 1979), arr. Patrick Sinozich


A contemporary twist on the miracle of Chanukah by Matisyahu, distilled further by Patrick in this “Tempo di Hanukkah” anthem. If you haven’t seen the music video, go to YouTube and search for “Matisyahu Miracle.


That’s Christmas to Me

Scott Hoying and Kevin Oluwole Olusola, arr. Katy & Penny Clark


It may be surprising (but true) to say the young teach the old. My youngest nephew, Isaiah, gave his uncle Paul a Christmas playlist several years ago and on it was a group call Pentatonix. Up until that time, Uncle Paul was unaware of the group. The rest, they say, is history, and thanks to Isaiah, we close this Holidays a cappella concert with this heart-warming hymn to family and belonging.