In its 142-year history, The Boston Cecilia has performed much of the choral canon of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps we have a special connection to Britten, given that he was born on Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day, November 22nd, in 1913. It is thought that Britten’s close friend and collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this in mind when he wrote the text for his and Britten’s final collaboration, Hymn to Saint Cecilia—a piece which Cecilia has performed multiple times. Cecilia also had the privilege of giving the American premiere of Phaedra, Britten’s last vocal work, composed in 1975. Now, in its upcoming Christmas concerts, Cecilia has the opportunity to share a work that is infrequently encountered: Christ’s Nativity, a Christmas suite for chorus. To the best of our knowledge, the complete suite has never been performed in its entirety in Boston.
My parents, immigrants fleeing the onset of World War II, came to the United States with their young family as refugees in 1940 -the year I was born. They were grateful and proud to be welcomed in America. As assimilated German Jews, their religion was German art and culture, mainly music. Christmas was celebrated in the German style, with candles (lit !) on the tree, and much music. Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent and daily in the week before Christmas, we gathered around the piano with my father atthe keyboard to sing traditional carols from the book by Henri Van Loon and Grace Castagnetti.
BY CHARLIE EVETT
When I first looked at the program for the 2014 Cecilia GalaI noticed Nicholas White’s auction offering: a composition with the text of your choosing. I mused over what text I might choose. What bit of scripture or ancient poem... Hey wait a minute! I know a guy...
Dad wrote poems for most of his life. Many were for special occasions -- for a marriage, or special birthday, or notably his own 50th wedding anniversary. He did have a book of poems for the general audience published by Cleveland State University Press in 1985, though this never attracted much notice. But standing above all were the poems he wrote every year at Christmas, beginning in 1972 and continuing through 2010, before his death in 2011. They took many forms and covered all kinds of topics, though usually they blended national news, big family developments, and imagery from Advent and the Nativity.
Being on something of a deadline, they were always written in anguish and desperation. Dad might take a break from grading that term’s papers, or perhaps put aside the duty and the blank page and head out with the dog into the cold. But eventually it was always done, and it was always brilliant, and beautiful.
So, with our commission in hand, Mom and I began to go through everything, trying to settle on a poem that would work as a piece of music for a general audience. We whittled the set down to two, and, unable to decide between them, threw ourselves on the mercy of the composer to make the final decision. He couldn't decide either, and much to our delight commenced to produce a set of the two together.
The poems are from 1976 and 1978, on either side of the great fulcrum of our family history -- the sabbatical trip to England in 1977. ‘76 was was spent planning, sending countless letters in advance to secure places to stay with friends and colleagues, and arranging access to the Elizabethan houses and artifacts that were the object of Dad’s research. The year was also spent saving every dime to finance the trip.
The Angel (1976 -- but the second in the set) seems to spring from the excitement and optimism of those days. Big ideas come to you. They send you out into the world to seek discovery. “The Angel appears -- he says Glory!”
By 1978 we had long been back, but profoundly changed by the experience of living in England for five months. First there had been the theater, as we went to just about everything the Royal Shakespeare Company put on in Stratford and London. Helen Mirren in As You Like It! Judy Dench and Ian McKellen in Macbeth! Henry VI parts I, II, and III! Then there was the music. Evensong at Kings College and visits to almost all the great Cathedrals. We discovered that bargain tickets for the London Symphony could be had for those fifteen years old and under, and when I heard the Hungarian Dances and 1st Symphony of Brahms, I was hooked for life.
The 1978 poem, His Unresisting Love, has the ambition and expansiveness one acquires when traveling abroad and returning home; the broadening of perspective that comes from living with people of different habits and concerns. It uses the device of alternating Latin and English lines (macaronic), after the manner of In Dulce Jubilo, or even more aptly, Benjamin Britten's Hymn to the Virgin. A Hymn to the Christ Child if you will.
One of Dad's best qualities was his ability to make our little corner of the world seem so special. Whether it be an old house in Cleveland, or a parish church in Brookline, if Dave Evett is present you know you can expect the best; art and ideas worthy of anyone's attention. This place! This company! THIS NIGHT!