Musica della sera

A Ceremony of Carols, Musica di Natale

Program Notes for Musica della sera broadcast of Thursday evening, December 13, 2012 ( see playlist and related video clips)

This week and next, music for the holiday season, a Musica della sera tradition.

Starting off the show with a brisk weaving counterpoint setting of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” titled Gloria Ad Modum Tubae (Gloria like a trumpet) for two tenors and two tenor sackbuts (early trombones) by 15th Century Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay, performed by the New York City ensemble, the Waverly Consort, A Christmas Story .

The Gregorian plainchant melody “Puer natus est nobis” forms the basis for Thomas Tallis’s impressive 7-part Christmas Mass of 1554, so I include it on the program as prologue.

The Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin, Beuron

The Monk’s Choir of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin, Beuron, directed by Father Maurus Pfaff, perform the Gregorian Introit: Puer natus est nobis, or as King James would have it, “For unto us a child is born…”.

I associate this chant, the Tallis mass, and the chorus for Händel’s Messiah with the birth of my son Julian, as they were included on an anthology of music I put together for Meera as a calming diversion in the anxious lead up to labor.

Chapel Interior of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin, Beuron

The Tallis Mass: Puer natus est nobis presumably was intended for lavish Christmas festival of 1554. Newlyweds Queen Mary and Philip of Spain had the birth of a boy on their minds, as did the English citizens, all anxious for an heir to the Tudor throne, and the month before, rumors were flying that she was pregnant.  (Spoiler: She wasn’t.) The mass as it survives is incomplete, lacking a Credo, and it’s unclear if was performed for the Christmas festival that year. Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen in this performance.

Portrait of Thomas Tallis

Pop culture recognizes Thomas Tallis as a character in the Showtime series, “The Tudors”.

A popular melody dating from the middle ages, “Resonant in Laudibus” has made its way into many settings.  Here are a couple from two albums featuring the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, conducted by the late great Konrad Rühland: an improvisatory organ piece by 16th Century composer Fridolin Sicher, and a medieval version in a shimmering performance of Christmas hymns from Das Moosburger Graduale, 1360. A gradual is a liturgical book containing the chants for the Mass. The Moosburg gradual also contains collection of feast-day hymns.  Konrad Rühland writes:

The Cantionarium, containing 33 hymns or “cantiones,” was created to displace the lascivious songs sung by the youths of the period by making available to them better and more spiritual alternatives.  The young scholars of Moosburg (“blebs mospurge doctrinata”) were to preserve some style on high days and holidays!

The Christmas Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli is one of his most popular works. The American Bach Soloists, conducted  by Jeffrey Thomas, perform an arrangement (recorder solos!) not commonly heard. Here are notes from the ensemble’s website:

Corelli’s publishers printed transcriptions of the composer’s famous Concerti Grossi. They were the most popular works of the day, and have remained popular among classical music afficionados. Through a stroke of genius marketing strategies, the works were transcribed for two recorders (instead of the customary two violin soloists), in order to make them accessible to players of other instruments. You’ll hear on this WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING the phenomenal playing of Dan Laurin and Hanneke van Proosdij.

Poster design for a concert performance of Bach's Missa Brevis BWV 233

I have many, many favorite Bach compositions, but my fondness for his Missae Breves, also known as the Lutheran Masses, is augmented by my feeling that they are underperformed, or once were.  I am irritated by the excuse that they contain reworked material from his many cantatas.  They are definitely something new; compact and delectable choral works. Most of the choruses are new and the music was revised to accommodate the mellifluous Latin text. Bach in Latin is not that common, (his great Mass in B Minor a gigantic exception).  Also, they were written for a guy named Count Sporck.  You got to love that!


"A Ceremony of Carols" cover design

By listener request (thank you, John in Wisconsin!) we hear Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, performed by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.  It was composed in 1942 aboard ship, en route from America to England on dangerous wartime seas! It started as a collection of unrelated songs, but was later framed into a unified work with a processional and recessional chant based on the Gregorian Christmas antiphon, “Hodie Christus natus est”, as a harp interlude in the middle based on the same chant.

Cover design of a Christmas LP from my childhood

A selection of the Robert Shaw Chorale singing Christmas Hymns and Carols, recorded in 1993 for the Telarc release, Songs of Angels. The melody for Resonet in Laudibus is the basis for the English carol, “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day”, freely translated from the Latin by John Mason Neale in the mid-19th Century.  “Mary Had a Baby” is a Negro Spiritual and “The Cherry Tree Carol” is an intriguing Christian ballad that demonstrates the telekinetic powers of Jesus in utero to bring cherries on the bough down to his mother to satisfy her cravings and astound her peevish husband.

This recording has very special meaning to me.  I grew up in the 1960′s loving the LP recordings of the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers singing Hymns and Carols, and I associate them with winding down of Christmas Eve, after the frenetic commotion of anticipation has run its course and all but the Christmas tree lights are turned off.  In 1993 Robert Shaw produced a new recording of Christmas Hymns and Carols.  I was thrilled to find the CD, because the LPs I grew up with had long since become too scratched to play anymore.  Until recently I thought they were remasters of the original recordings, so much did they resemble the sound I remembered from childhood.  But looking closely at the liner notes I see that they were new recordings of old arrangements:

“All these carols are heard in delightful arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. Most date from the early 1950s and the immensely popular concerts and recordings of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Adding a bit of harmony here, some simple counterpoint there, Shaw and Parker never obscure the eloquence of the songs themselves. The carols still speak directly to us with their message of hope, joy and wonder.” ─from the liner notes by Nick Jones

As a child I didn’t know anything about countertenors, and assumed it was a woman who sang the solos on Mary Had a Baby and The Cherry Tree Carol.  I do not have the liner notes for the LP release.  My memory has played tricks on me. The distinct and remarkable voice of Christopher Cock in the 1993 sessions I thought was the same as that of the earlier recordings, but this web page makes me think those solos were been sung by Russell Oberlin, another countertenor I admired growing up.  Esoteric stuff, maybe, but I feel compelled to get it right after all these years.*

The pure expressive sound of a simple a capella choir, in contrast to the brash, repetitive, commercial, or corny Christmas music heard all season long, helped calm and prepare me for sleep the night before Christmas, and most of all, let me focus on what I find most beautiful and important about the holiday, the uplifting of spirit that comes from comprehending with ineffable gratitude the love of family.

I conclude the show with the remarkable music of Franco Battiato.  While the song is not associated with Christmas, the theme of shadow and light has resonance for me as a mediation on the Winter Solstice.

L’ombra della luce

Difendimi Dalle Forze Contrarie,
La Notte, Nel Sonno, Quando Non Sono Cosciente;
Quando Il Mio Percorso, Si Fa Incerto
E Non Mi Abbandonare Mai
Non Mi Abbandonare Mai!
Riportami Nelle Zone Pi Alte
In Uno Dei Tuoi Regni Di Quiete
E’ Tempo Di Lasciare Questo Ciclo Di Vite
E Non Mi Abbandonare Mai
Non Mi Abbandonare Mai!
Perch Le Gioie Del Pi Profondo Affetto,
O Dei Pi Lievi Aneliti Del Cuore,
Sono Solo L’ombra Della Luce
Ricordami, Come Sono Infelice
Lontano Dalle Tue Leggi;
Come Non Sprecare Il Tempo Che Mi Rimane
E Non Abbandonarmi Mai
Non Mi Abbandonare Mai!
Perch La Pace Che Ho Sentito In Certi Monasteri,
O La Vibrante Intesa Di Tutti I Sensi In Festa,
Sono Solo L’ombra Della Luce


The Shadow of the Light

Rescue me from opposing forces,
night, asleep, when they are not conscious
when my path, it is uncertain
And never leave me
And never leave me on my own
Bring me in the highest areas
to one of your reign of peace:
It ‘s time to leave this cycle of lives.
And never leave me
And never leave me on my own
Why, the joys of the deepest affection
or lighter passages of the heart
are only a shadow of light,
Remember, as I am unhappy
Far from your laws;
how not to waste the time I left.
And never leave me
And never leave me on my own
Why, the peace that I felt in some monasteries,
or the vibrant understanding of all the senses in celebration,
are only a shadow of light.

*Now, having listened to these songs closely, through headphones, I realize that no way was this the same monaural recording I grew up with, nor do the timbres of the solo voices particularly resemble those of the earlier recording.  In 1993 Robert Shaw recreated the 1950′s recording, using the same arrangements, the same program of hymns and carols, but my brain, ignoring the differences, fused them into one.  It is the sheer brilliance of the arrangements, and the finesse of the performance under Shaw’s baton in both sessions, four decades apart, that give them that timeless transcendental beauty.


─Nicholas Mitchell

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One Response to “A Ceremony of Carols, Musica di Natale”

  1. John Says:

    Huh, I didn’t know there was a commercial recording of the SATB arrangement of A Ceremony of Carols. Wish I’d known that when my church choir prepared it last year.