A good Christmas carol needs to have a good tune. Whether or not one subscribes to this concept, the dictionary definition of the word carol suggests “a song of joy or mirth, a popular song or ballad.” For me, the most memorable expressions of joy around the holiday time come from the most simply tuneful, rhythmically playful and sublime musical offerings. In our December program, we will offer a broad palette of carols that, I feel, fit that description.
Some of the most effective programming choices seem to happen subconsciously, just as much as they follow lengthy, serious consideration. This year’s program, entitled “No Small Wonder” is no exception. In assembling this program of mostly 20th Century works from England, Wales and America, it strikes me again that beautiful choral music transcends national boundaries and language. Well over half of the program actually uses a mixture of English and Latin within the same composition, and these macaronic offerings underscore the power of melody and song in the effective communication of the Christmas message.
John Jacob Niles’ haunting melody to I Wonder As I Wander is given elegant treatment by John Rutter as the program softly begins, with undulating harmonic support from the choir. This is followed by the crisp, clean rhythms of Samuel Scheidt’s Puer Natus In Bethlehem, the buoyant melody of the soloist reflecting the excitement of the message, and provoking an exuberant choral response. Robert Lucas Pearsall’s radiant arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo has become a favorite of choirs across the world. Pearsall translated the German words into his own English version, and maintained the original alternation with the Latin phrases, ending with an extended development of the music for the words “O that we were there.”
Carols are intended to be sung by everyone. Following the short organ solo, one of Bach’s fantasia-style chorale preludes on the In Dulci Jubilo tune, the audience will get a chance to join in the singing. The First Nowell is from 18th-century Cornwall, arranged by David Willcocks in various harmonizations for the choral forces. The audience is invited to join in the singing of the refrain throughout.
Ave Rex by Welshman William Mathias was first performed in December 1969 by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir in Llandaff Cathedral. It was commissioned by the choir and is a sequence of three contrasting anonymous medieval carols framed by a dramatic setting of the invocation Ave Rex itself. The three carols are a high-spirited Alleluya; an introspective setting of There is no Rose and finally the cheery and joyful Sir Christèmas. The work concludes with a reprise of the sequence’s opening material.
The second half of the program begins with the work from which this concert takes its name. Paul Edwards wrote this lush, jazz-inspired setting of Paul Wigmore’s poem with its recurrent phrase “no small wonder” in 1983, and it has become much loved by choirs during the last three decades. The foundation of the organ provides a rich, warm bed of harmony for the simple melody. Indeed, it is the harmony that provides the greater part of the intrigue in this piece.
Peter Warlock (born Philip Heseltine) was a music critic and composer of some notoriety, his chosen pseudonym reflecting his interest in occult practices! The set moves from the simple, yet powerful, unison setting of Adam Lay Ybounden, through the poignant setting of Bruce Blunt’s poem Bethlehem Down with its earthy imagery, on to the gentle Balulalow and culminating in the riotous exuberance of Benedicamus Domino. These four of Warlock carols demonstrate a rich variety of textures that are undeniably from the pen of a master craftsman with a distinctive musical voice.
Distinctive musical voice is a quality that can certainly be applied to the French composer on the program tonight. While we are not featuring any delicate early French Noëls here, Barbara Bruns will play one of the most popular of Olivier Messiaen’s works for organ, the final movement from his nine-piece cycle La Nativité du Seigneur, known as Dieu parmi nous, or “god among us.” Messiaen’s unique harmonic language and virtuoso writing for the organ builds to a grand toccata that, with the thrusting descent of the pedal line, symbolizes God coming down from heaven.
John Goss was a professor of harmony at the Royal Academy of Music from 1827-1874, and was also organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. His setting of Edward Caswall’s text has again been arranged by David Willcocks, inventively varying the combinations of voices. The audience is invited to join in the refrain of See amid the Winter’s Snow.
Richard Wayne Dirksen spent his entire career at Washington National Cathedral, where he was influential in many areas, most especially in musical leadership, creation and teaching. A Child My Choice was written quickly, in response to the need for some music to fill out the time on a live Christmas broadcast. Dirksen’s setting of Southwell’s words has subsequently become a favorite of choirs all over the United States. The simple, lilting 5/4 time and straightforward opening harmonies belie a depth of emotion that comes through in the middle of each verse. In short, this carol represents the very best example of simplicity reaching the listener in a profound way.
The final three pieces on the program are shining examples of the type of carol that any listeners would want to allow to simply wash over them as they sit within the walls of some gothic cathedral church, as the snow falls outside and the candlelight glimmers within, to usher in the holiday season is. Grayston Ives was a member of The King’s Singers, and subsequently Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford. Sweet Was The Song is an example of his lyrical style, written with a full understanding of vocal elegance, and reminiscent of Rutter’s earlier carol, What Sweeter Music. Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday we celebrate as I write these notes, is best known for his Ceremony of Carols. His elegant A Hymn to the Virgin, for double choir, composed in 1930 during an enforced spell in the infirmary at Gresham’s School when he was only sixteen years old, shows Britten’s mastery of compositional techniques and choral textures from a very young age. Another macaronic text, the solo quartet interjects Latin phrases in response to the choir’s lines of poetry in honor of the Lady, flower of everything.
We end with one of John Rutter’s earliest carols, for which he wrote both words and music. Published in 1967, The Nativity Carol alternates lines of heart-on-the-sleeve poignancy with a simple refrain of the Christmas message. Achieving everything that its predecessor, In The Bleak Midwinter by Harold Darke, achieves, Rutter’s carol has in its own way become a classic example of the sound of Christmas.