Saturday, December 24, 2011

Music for Christmas Eve

Yes, you lovely long-time readers of this blog are right: Hark, Hear the Bells, Part One was written last year.  We should look at this not as a failure to follow through on the promise of Part Two back in 2010 but rather as evidence that, as the Byrds say, to everything there is a season: turn, turn, turn.  And lo, the season has arrived again.

In the spirit of continuity, I left off promising you a list of choral Christmas favorites, and so, because my words here are sacred, I've asked my friend Christine to join us as an expert guest blogger.  Christine is, like, actually a singer; I'm recreational, but she's professional.  We sang together as choristers, and since then she has gone on to hone her artistry through advanced studies.  She brings an incredible understanding of historical and cultural context to the music she performs, making us especially lucky that she agreed to write today's post.  (She usually charges for this sort of thing, you know!)  Please do help me welcome Christine:

Hello! I’m very honored that Betsy has invited me to write this guest post on my favorite Christmas carols. She and I grew up singing in choir together in Washington, DC, so choral music is a huge part of our friendship. I’m delighted to share my choral obsession knowledge with you!

I’ve put together a list of music that, essentially, I would program for my ideal service of Nine Lessons and Carols (nine pieces, plus an introit!), thus excluding movements from large choral works like Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Both are great works, but they don’t belong here. I am also an unabashed Anglophile, and it definitely shows in this list (and not only in the prevalence of King’s College Cambridge in the YouTube videos—I would have chosen other good recordings, if they were more widely available online)! There really are hundreds of great little gems to choose from, so I hope no one’s offended that I didn’t include their favorite piece on this list. I also hope, though, that if you aren’t familiar with some of these pieces, you grow to love them as I do, and include them in your own annual traditional/classical/choral Christmas collection.

Without further ado, here are my top ten carols:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day – John Gardner

I’ll never forget the hilarity that ensued when we first sang this piece with the Choir of Men and Girls at Washington National Cathedral! “Then was I—born of a vir—gin pure!” It’s truly brilliant text setting, especially in the minds of high school girls and immature lay clerks. And the combo of organ, descant, and tambourine in the last verse? Amazing.

There is a Flower – John Rutter

Undoubtedly the best piece John Rutter ever composed (in part thanks to the lack of super cheesy organ accompaniment, so commonly found in his other carols), this piece opens with a gorgeous solo (sung in this recording by our friend Gen!). The texture grows more and more lush, climaxing with cascading “alleluias,” and concludes with a reprisal of the opening solo.

I sing of a maiden – Peter Hadley

I have fond memories of singing this piece in treble only weekday Evensong at the National Cathedral, a tradition that I still miss being a part of to this day, and that may account for some of my love of this piece. I think it might be a little more obscure than some of the other music on this list; however, I do think that it’s absolutely gorgeous, and I hope you like it too!

Hodie Christus natus est – Jan Peterzoon Sweelinck

It was a tough call between this setting, by Jan Peterzoon Sweelinck, and the setting of the same text by Francis Poulenc, but the sheer joy of Sweelinck’s music is impossible to turn down. I love the contrasts between the different sections of text, and the enthusiasm that you feel singing (or listening to) the exclamations of “Noé!” at the end.

Videte miraculum – Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis is one of my absolute favorite composers (if you like this, check out In ieiunio et fletu, Missa Puer natus est (a Christmas mass!), O nata lux…and pretty much everything else he wrote), so I really couldn’t leave him off this list, especially with a Christmas piece as stunning as this. It’s a great piece to sing soprano on, especially if you like floaty high stuff!

Coventry carol – anonymous, 1591 MS

While this tune is very well known in several arrangements, I particularly love this one, found in a 1591 British manuscript. I’ll show my bias towards early music by saying that the semitonal dissonances at the end of each verse and refrain (called cross relations) are so, so awesome!!

Here is the Little Door – Herbert Howells

Composed by Herbert Howells, in my opinion one of the greatest British composers of all time, this piece is an absolute gem. The way he contrasts the verses with different harmonizations that reflect the text (like Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, as you’ll read later in this post) is absolute genius.

In Dulci Jubilo – Robert Pearsall

Like the Coventry Carol, this is a well known tune, sung in many different arrangements. This one, composed by Robert Pearsall, is particularly lovely. For some reason, perhaps because it is so frequently performed by young British choirs, and combines the traditional Latin text with English tropes, it sounds exceptionally Anglican to me (which makes me love it even more!)

A Spotless Rose – Herbert Howells

Who doesn’t love a nice juicy…baritone soloist? Seriously, though, maybe it’s just because I have a somewhat pathetic penchant for good baritone voices, but this piece makes me weak in the knees every time I hear it. Again, Howells = genius.

Bethlehem Down – Peter Warlock

This piece, composed in 1927 by Peter Warlock, is so beautiful! Like Here is the Little Door, I love how the harmonizations of the melody change based on the text of each verse. Of course, it helps that the text itself, written by a friend of Warlock named Bruce Blunt, is so poignant:

"When He is King we will give Him the Kings' gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes," said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her firstborn on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When He is King, they will clothe Him in gravesheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep Him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

While I’ve never actually sung this carol myself, I’ve heard it several times, and I keep my fingers crossed every Christmas that it will be scheduled for one of the services or concerts I sing in. I also find it quite amusing that Warlock and Blunt teamed up to write the carol to submit it to the Daily Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol writing contest in order to fund a pub crawl! It’s precisely the mindset of many Anglican musicians I know today!


Thanks so much, Christine!  It's great to see some old favorites on this list and to be introduced to new pieces that I'm sure will quickly enter my iTunes rotation.  Dear readers, I hope that your Christmas weekend is full of music and joy.

(Check back tomorrow morning to see if you've won the GIVEAWAY - you still have a few hours to enter!)

1 comment:

  1. FYI, I just found this obituary for John Gardner, who died on the 23rd. Who knew he once gave composition lessons to Paul McCartney?!


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