Puer Natus Est: Music for Christmas - 2016

by Nicholas White

This year, our December concerts focus on the nativity story, with music written almost exclusively in the 20th Century. As befits Cecilia’s tradition, one piece is very much earlier, and one piece is brand new, receiving its world premiere.

Benjamin Britten’s remarkably popular choral piece A Ceremony Of Carols begins the concert. It is written for three part treble voices, setting a text from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, in Middle English. Britten wrote the piece in 1942 while at sea, going from the United States to England. The set of ten songs is framed by processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon Hodie Christus natus est, and a harp solo based on the chant forms an effective centerpiece.

Nicholas White’s eight movement sequence Alleluia! Puer Natus Est Nobis was written in 2002 for The Tiffany Consort. For this piece, as with the Britten, a plainsong melody – this time Puer natus est nobis – is employed. Four Latin carols are interspersed with four Alleluia sections, each of which is based upon a fragment of the plainsong, appearing in a different voice part for each Alleluia. The final Alleluia surges into an exultant setting of Hodie Christus natus est, which then returns to a unison statement of the opening phrase of the plainsong melody, a short, fanfare-like Gloria in excelsis Deo, and finally a serene Alleluia. Amen. The other three carols include a mysterious Videntes stellam, with representations of the star in the high sopranos, the wandering magi in the altos, and the grounded, plodding camels in the tenors and basses; a gently pastoral Quem vidistis representing the shepherds piping in the fields; and a tender O magnum mysterium that marvels on the mystery that the animals were the first to lay eyes on the newborn Christ in their stable. This particular carol has become extremely popular with choirs across the world, most recently as a set piece for choral competitions across Japan, Korea and China. The original recording of Alleluia! Puer Natus Est Nobis garnered Nicholas White and The Tiffany Consort a Grammy nomination in 2006.

The second half of the concert begins with the tenors and basses singing the 15th Century English tune Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva. (News! News! "Ave" has been made from "Eve"!) The first word that the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation was "Ave", which is “Eva” backwards. This play on words forms the basis of a retelling of the Annunciation story, vigorously declaimed, with the recurring refrain, by the gentlemen of the choir.

Francis Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise are scored for unaccompanied tenors and basses, and were composed for and dedicated to the monastery choir at Champfleury. Again, the influence of plainsong is clearly in evidence, as is Poulenc’s own unmistakable musical language. Each of the four short pieces exudes reverence and solemnity. The first and fourth pieces feature organum, chromaticism, and twisting harmonic progressions that build perfect tension and release. The second is completely homophonic throughout, with hardly any dissonance, and the third, Seigneur, je vous en prie, takes a turn for the simpler with warm, gentle harmonic progressions, and mostly three part writing. "Of course I honor Saint Francis," commented Poulenc on one occasion, "but he is a little intimidating. At any rate, I wanted my musical settings of his poignant little prayers to be an exercise in humility."

Franz Biebl's best-known work is his Ave Maria (1964) and was brought to the United States by the Cornell University Glee Club in 1970. The ensemble met Biebl while on tour in Germany, during a recording session at a radio network where Biebl was music director. Ave Maria quickly gained popularity, most notably after becoming part of the repertoire of the San Francisco based men’s choir, Chanticleer. We present it tonight in its original form for male trio and TTBB chorus.

Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster is a fantasia on the Westminster chimes, played from the Clock Tower, Palace of Westminster, since 1858. The chimes play four notes in the key of E major, G#, F#, E, and B in various patterns every fifteen minutes. Vierne's friend, Henry Willis, hummed the tune for the composer upon Vierne's request; apparently, either Willis hummed the tune incorrectly or Vierne misheard his friend upon transcription. Vierne misquoted the second quarter of the chimes. There is debate among musicologists as to whether or not this rumor is true, or if Vierne altered the melody to suit his own purpose.

Dan Roihl’s 1999 composition, To Us This Day, was written for Murray Forbes Somerville and the Harvard University Choir. Marked Gently lilting, the piece rises and falls with elegance as the text is shared among the substantially divided chorus. The refrain, Sing alleluia to the infant King weaves through the texture, at times stated strongly by the full chorus, and at other times in elegant counterpoint, bringing this lilting, expressive composition to a gentle close. Dr. Daniel Roihl has spent the past twenty years sharing his infectious passion for the musical arts with collaborators of all ages, disciplines, and experience levels. He is active as a countertenor soloist, and has also remained continuously engaged in ensemble performance. He has sung with The Boston Cecilia for the last four seasons. Also in demand as a composer, Roihl has written commissions for Boston’s Youth Pro Musica, the Royal School of Church Music, several churches, and the installation of a past Harvard President.

Finally, my latest composition for the Christmas season is given its first performance tonight. The Crib And The Cross, setting a poem by Ben Boulter, was written for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year. This carol relies on a complex and colorful organ accompaniment to give support to the singers. The piece begins with a straightforward statement of the main melody, sung by the sopranos and altos, and develops with a combination of strong unison phrases, and jazz infused choral harmonies. A meandering, chromatic second theme is used for the third verse, followed by a strong return to the original theme for the final verse, culminating in a rich and exultant Quia Jesus natus est which rounds off the piece – and indeed tonight’s concert – with a ruminative and serenely peaceful conclusion.