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From the timeless plainchant Veni Emmanuel via Jonathan Harvey to a riotous Jingle bells: Owain Park presents a programme of Christmas treats which effortlessly spans the centuries.
German composer and theorist Michael Praetorius was one of the most versatile and prolific composers of his generation, but is perhaps best known for his adaptations of Protestant hymns. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland a 6 takes a text by Martin Luther—a translation of the hymn ‘Veni, redemptor gentium’—and sets it to dramatic rhetorical effect, with imitative textures and arresting gestures constantly seizing the listener’s attention. As each new segment of the melody is introduced it is shortly followed by a series of increasingly florid embellishments—a constant rewiring of the texture that is interrupted with great impact to herald the final line, ‘Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt’ (‘that God ordained him such a birth’).
The Annunciation, a setting of words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir, was composed in 2011 for the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, by British composer Jonathan Harvey who believed this would be his final work. Harvey sought a form of spirituality with unity at its core, with particular emphasis on the interaction between energy and stillness, an approach that finds a parallel in the Advent season’s combination of expectation and reflection. The beginning of each stanza is marked by the introduction of a musical idea that subtly refers back to the opening statement. A moment of calm in the centre of the work—‘Feathered through time’—is later recaptured, as the ‘deepening trance’ of the final stanza is brought alive with a beautiful series of closing chords.
Videte miraculum is a choral respond by Thomas Tallis which uses plainsong both as a solo line and dissolved into a beautifully woven six-part polyphonic texture. Particularly striking is the opening point of imitation on ‘miraculum’—a dissonance repeated in each vocal entry to hypnotic effect—as well as the radiant harmony at ‘Et matrem’ which seems to gain in intensity each time it returns (also notable as the piece is thought to have been written when Queen Mary I was with child).
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The promised light of life sets a Latin text by St Bede, which is briefly conflated with a short phrase in English from the Revelation of St John the Divine: ‘I am the bright and morning star.’ The voices are gradually revealed through the building-up of chords, an effect repeated at the end of the piece. The middle section is coloured by long melismatic vocal lines, highlighting the word ‘aeternam’ (‘everlasting’).
Gaudete, meaning ‘rejoice’, is a medieval carol related to the third Sunday of Advent, known as ‘Gaudete Sunday’. The song was first published in about 1582 in a Scandinavian volume called Piae Cantiones. The simple tune of each verse is answered by the pithy refrain or ‘burden’, harmonized in this version by Brian Kay.
Having spent several years collecting folk songs for The English Hymnal, Ralph Vaughan Williams skilfully arranged The truth sent from above with harmonies that echo the style of the Tudor composers he so admired. The text and melody were later used in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed in Hereford Cathedral in 1912. For the final verse Owain Park has reimagined some of these harmonies in a more contemporary light, subtly referencing chord progressions from Vaughan Williams’s own works.
The German hymn Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen first appeared in print in 1599, and was commonly sung to a melody harmonized by Michael Praetorius ten years later. The first verse describes a rose sprouting from the stem of the Tree of Jesse, an image that was especially popular in medieval times and featured in many works of religious art from the period. Since the nineteenth century other verses have been added, with most focusing on the fragrance of the tender flower which dispels darkness and evil.
Angelus ad virginem is a popular medieval carol that appeared in at least six manuscripts from the late thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth century in England, France and Ireland. The words appeared in Latin (‘Angelus ad virginem’) as well as English (‘Gabriel fram evene king’) with subtle differences in the melody across the sources. The complete poem, which tells the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, is said to have originally consisted of twenty-seven stanzas, each beginning with the consecutive letter of the alphabet. Here we perform a more modest four verses, gradually adding voices as the piece progresses.
Lullay my liking was written by Gustav Holst for a Whitsun festival in Thaxted. The refrain is an early example of an English lullaby; the term ‘lullaby’ is thought to have originated in the sounds made to calm fretful children—in this case ‘lu lu’ or ‘la la’, or ‘bye bye’ as heard in the similarly ancient Coventry Carol. Though it is known that Holst preferred each verse to be sung by the same soprano soloist, here we have assigned each verse to a different singer to bring out the nuances of the text.
John Rutter composed There is a flower in 1985 at the invitation of George Guest, then organist and choir director of St John’s College, Cambridge. The words were written by fifteenth-century priest and poet John Audelay, who focuses on the imagery of a ‘Jesse Tree’, whose branches offer a sign of new life and were often depicted in medieval painting and stained glass. The melody effortlessly rises towards the middle of each verse before falling back down, much like the blooming and withering of a flower. Rutter takes us on a journey through different textures, with moments for solo voice juxtaposed with six-part chordal writing. Particularly effective is the orchestration of the fourth verse, where the upper voices depict flights of angels singing ‘Alleluia’ over the tune in the lower parts.
With over 500 works attributed to his name, Jacob Handl was a prolific composer of the late Renaissance, writing during the Counter-Reformation in Bohemia. The festive motet Canite tuba opens with a striking descending motif that introduces all five lower voices in quick succession. The texture is often busy and involved, with parts occasionally joining together in twos or threes to emphasize important moments in the text. Melodic lines commonly associated with brass fanfares are employed at words including ‘vocate’ and ‘et clamate’, evoking the sounding of trumpets to declare the good news.
The Trinity Carol Roll, a parchment scroll over six feet long, is the earliest source for English polyphonic carols. Dating from the early fifteenth century in East Anglia, the roll contains words and musical notation on a five-line stave for thirteen carols in Middle English and Latin. These include the patriotic ‘Deo gracias Anglia!’, also known as the ‘Agincourt Carol’, celebrating Henry V’s victory over the French in 1415, and the popular There is no rose which was later arranged by Benjamin Britten for his Ceremony of Carols in 1942.
Verbum caro factum est is an exultant setting of the famous account of the Incarnation from the beginning of St John’s Gospel, and would have been sung at Matins on Christmas Day. This setting by Hans Leo Hassler for six voices was first published in his 1591 collection Cantiones sacrae. Borrowing from the Venetian tradition, voices are split into groups that pass the music back and forth before coming joyfully together at climactic moments in the text. At the close of the work, Hassler alternates between a three- and six-voice texture at great speed on ‘et veritatis’, resulting in an almost rhapsodic portrayal of the revelation of God’s truth.
An English Christmas carol dating from the sixteenth century, the Coventry Carol was originally performed as part of a mystery play, The Shearmen and Taylors’ Pageant, which enacts the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew. The carol’s unusual text refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two to be killed, and takes the form of a lullaby sung by the mothers of the doomed children.
On the infancy of our saviour was composed by Owain Park in 2014, and sets a poem from Divine Fancies by Francis Quarles (1592–1644). The voices weave a rich, tonally ambiguous tapestry from which soloists gradually begin to emerge, their wide-ranging exclamations contrasting with the choir’s more sinuous harmonic progressions. The opening chord is revisited throughout the work, often to bring out significant moments in the text such as ‘Blest’ and ‘Smiling’.
Eleanor Daley’s beautiful setting of Love came down at Christmas was composed in 2004 for the Victoria Scholars of Toronto, Canada. The words are by Christina Rossetti, who published the poem without a title in Time Flies: A Reading Diary in 1885. A tenor soloist begins by setting out a largely scalic melody which is later developed over the course of the piece. The short interjections of ‘Alleluia’ tug the harmony in different directions, but the work persistently returns to its tonal centre, leaving a warm and comforting feeling.
Michael Praetorius included the tune to In dulci iubilo in several of his compositional collections. The melody itself was probably first written down in Leipzig in about 1400 as a macaronic carol in German and Latin, and like Gaudete it appears in the 1582 volume Piae Cantiones. J S Bach here treats this beautiful melody to his characteristically luminous harmony, and also composed a chorale prelude for the organ, BWV751, based on the same theme.
Thomas Hardy’s poem The oxen imagines a scene by the still fireside as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day. A sense of expectation hangs in the air, which Jonathan Rathbone cultivates in harmonies that rarely seem to settle. The texture is rich throughout and the pacing constant through the voices, giving the sense of an ancient story being told to entranced listeners.
Although the words for Away in a manger were once believed to be the work of German religious reformer Martin Luther, the carol is now thought to be wholly American in origin. Perhaps the most famous tune is by William James Kirkpatrick, which is arranged here by Philip Lawson. The first verse is a simple four-part harmonization, with the second and third verses placing a solo voice in relief against a background of slow-moving harmonies.
Published in the autumn of 1857 under the title ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’, James Lord Pierpont’s Jingle bells was originally intended for the Thanksgiving season, but was quickly hijacked for December festivities by revellers. Since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise, in the New England winter season it was common to adorn horse harnesses with straps bearing bells as a way to avoid collisions at blind intersections. The rhythm of the tune mimics the trotting horse’s bells, though Gordon Langford sometimes takes a little liberty with the standard pulse, adding a little sherry to the festive metre.
Owain Park © 2019
In the Renaissance, Advent—the weeks preceding the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas—was a time of wonder and reflection. Centuries-old carols tell this story, with some works presented here in their inherited form, others reimagined by skilled arrangers. Pieces that focus on the birth of Christ form the backbone of this collection: Thomas Hardy’s tableau of the scene on Christmas Eve is particularly striking, alongside music that heralds the baby’s arrival and offers insight into the first few weeks of Jesus’s life. Themes and forms are echoed through the ages: two lullabies, though written centuries apart, employ coaxing refrains to be sung to disquieted children; some of the most exquisite melodies are found in works dedicated to Mary.
I hope that we have managed to capture something of the festive spirit, with moments of stillness set against joyful exuberance. It is music that we thoroughly enjoy singing—we all feel a certain magic when we revisit this repertoire towards the end of each year.
Owain Park © 2019