December 10, 2016, 8pm | St. Joseph Parish, Seattle
December 11, 2016, 3pm | Plymouth Church, Seattle
Not One Sparrow is Forgotten – Christmas with Choral Arts NW
O Radiant Dawn (2007) – James MacMillan (b.1959)
Man that is born of a woman (1678?) – Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
O come, O come, Emmanuel (1999) – arr. Bern Herbolsheimer (1948–2016)
Jessica French, soprano
EMBRACING THE MYSTERY
Love came down at Christmas (2016) – Jessica French (b.1984)
World premiere performance
Un Dia de noviembre (1968) – Leo Brouwer (b. 1939)
O magnum mysterium (1952) – Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
O be joyful (1986) – Jeffrey Van (b.1941)
FOLLOWING A STAR
Once in royal David’s city (1988) arr. Bern Herbolsheimer
Emily Herivel, soprano
Pastorcito santo (1952) – Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–1999)
How sweet is love (1960) – Michael Paget (1936–1994)
Eit barn er født i Betlehem (2014) – arr. Ørjan Matre (b.1979)
MOTHER AND CHILD
Bogoroditse Devo (1915) – Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Christmas Lullaby (1984) – Jeffrey Van
What cheer? (1961) – William Walton (1902–1983)
Alleluia (2016) – Jacob Nerverud (b.1986)
Silent night (1818) Franz Gruber (1787–1863)
Not one sparrow is forgotten (1998) arr. William Hawley (b.1950)
There are so many ways to approach Christmas. We each take different pieces of this ancient tradition and make them our own. This applies to poets and composers, as well as to worshippers and even casual observers. What does Christmas mean to you?
The old Christians timed their commemoration of the birth of their savior to coincide with the winter solstice, and thus the preceding weeks, as nights get longer and darker, bear a special connection. The Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan imbues his O Radiant Dawn with spare, even severe harmonies, as befits an appeal for the coming dawn or the imminent birth of Christ. Some texts do not bear a direct affiliation to Christmas, but seem appropriate to the growing darkness, as that set by Henry Purcell, the great English post-Restoration composer, in Man that is born of a woman. This was an early work, written for a burial service and later sung at the funeral of Queen Mary. Purcell’s characteristic chromatic dissonances paint the tragedy, and his imitative writing (such as the rising steps at “He cometh up”) conveys the text clearly and significantly: the winter has always been a time of burials. The most famous text affiliated with this season of Advent is the medieval hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, heard here in an arrangement by Bern Herbolsheimer, the much beloved Seattle composer who died earlier this year. Herbolsheimer assigns the chant first to a solo soprano with delicate instrumental flurries. For the last verse, he expands from a mostly unison texture to a full four voices, assigning increasing majesty to mankind’s appeal to be of “one heart and mind”.
The tale of Jesus’ birth itself is told with so many different emphases, perhaps brought on by different cultures. Bern Herbolsheimer’s arrangement of the nineteenth-century English carol Once in royal David’s city opens with soprano solo in accordance with the famed tradition established at King’s College, Cambridge. This carol reflects on Jesus’ youth, hoping that all children can adopt his example; we hear this in Herbolsheimer’s imitative third verse, as if each child sang the opening motive in turn. The poem Pastorcito santo, by Lope de Vega, addresses the infant savior directly, even conversationally. Joaquín Rodrigo, the greatest Spanish composer of the twentieth century, set it as a solo song with guitar in a parlando, or speaking, style with even eighth notes. Rather farther north, the fourteenth-century hymn Puer natus est in Bethlehem (“A child is born in Bethlehem”) gained great popularity in Denmark, and from there spread to Norway as Eit barn er født i Betlehem. The young Norwegian composer Ørjan Matre, known more for orchestral music than for choral, assigns the text not to its original chant but to a traditional folksong, with quasi-instrumental supporting voices. Perhaps the ancient text that best describes the scene of Jesus’ birth is also the simplest: O magnum mysterium. The manger scene is a truly mysterious and mystical event for the great French composer Francis Poulenc, who was devoutly Catholic. After low, ethereal chords are established, the sopranos enter on a high melody which gradually descends to meet the other voices, just as, in a sense, the newborn baby had.
The most prominent figure at the manger, other than the infant himself, was his mother, Mary. She is the subject of especially great reverence in the Russian Orthodox tradition, as can be heard in Bogoroditse Devo by Sergei Rachmaninoff. This prayer, the Orthodox equivalent of the Ave Maria, is part of Rachmaninoff’s complete Vespers service, which Choral Arts will perform in January. Rachmaninoff affixes chant-like melodies to this ancient text and gives special prominence to the altos, traditionally a choir’s most motherly timbre. Jeffrey Van’s Christmas Lullaby is a lullaby similar to that which Mary might have sung to her child. His harmonies are mysterious and minor-key, with progressions almost akin to those of Middle Eastern music. Van, a prominent guitarist based in Minneapolis, always provides a satisfying choral sound, thanks to his long association with the great Dale Warland Singers. Moving further east, the Shaker hymn Not one sparrow is forgotten includes appeals to both a heavenly mother and father. The composer William Hawley, who led the resurgence of interest in American choral music in the 1980s, gives us a perfectly crafted miniature, illustrating his always fine pacing of rhythmic motion, spacing of eight-part chords, dynamics linked to the text, and sumptuous harmonies.
One facet of Christian theology holds that the birth of Jesus was an act of the savior’s love for humankind. Almost nothing is known of the twentieth-century American composer Michael Paget, but he obviously held great affinity for English-style church anthems, as evidenced by his How sweet is love. Its subtle emphasis on “Amor” (“Love”) sticks in the mind even more prominently than the angels or shepherds. Christina Rossetti’s brilliant poem Love came down at Christmas brings this philosophy to the forefront of the season. Composer Jessica French, who sings in Choral Arts, provides two main motives, one steadily rising as at the introduction, and another that falls lightly and trippingly: just as “Love came down”, so do the pitches. The texture is light, with greater division among the women than the men, but she expands steadily over the course of the work, from one voice to a majestic seven.
Thus there are many reflections on winter, family, and love, but all of this can also be expressed by unbridled joy. Jeffrey Van has adapted and expanded the hundredth psalm for his O be joyful, with a skipping, vaguely Spanish-inflected refrain. The anonymous sixteenth-century poem What cheer? brings matters even beyond Christmas to the New Year: the birth of Jesus thus becomes cause to celebrate all year long. William Walton, one of the most prominent twentieth-century English composers, provides jubilant mood through jazzy and modal harmonies and quicksilver rhythm. But to look for joy, one needn’t explore beyond Jacob Nerverud’s Alleluia. Nerverud is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, one of the talented, young, post-Whitacre generation of American choral composers. Here he juxtaposes jaunty rhythms, vibrant patter, and sweeping melody.
Perhaps this season brings to you difficulties amid the darkness. Perhaps you worship a newborn savior. Perhaps Christmas is a time to spend with family. Or it may inspire feelings of greater love, or of joy. It is our hope that tonight’s concert will help you to step away from the world for a while—to be calm, and to reflect: what does Christmas mean to you?
Program notes and translations prepared by Dr. Gary D. Cannon, www.cannonesque.com.
© 2016 Gary D. Cannon. All rights reserved. Further use is prohibited except by agreement.