THE ANGELS SING, THE ARCHANGELS REJOICE!
One of the surest methods composers have to convey emotions of joy is to evoke images of childhood. The child’s unjaded sense of wonder at the world can uplift the stoniest heart and rekindle hope. Part of the archetypal power of the Christian Nativity story, after all, stems from its juxtaposition of the disarming innocence of childhood with a corrupt world. Its fundamental theological paradox – that the transforming spark of the divine flickers brightest in the humblest, most ordinary circumstances – reminds us of the insight of perspective that we gain from the joy of children.
“How could the Eternal do a temporal act?/The Infinite become a finite fact?” asks W.H. Auden in his extraordinary “Christmas oratorio” For the Time Being, a long dramatic poem he wrote during the Second World War. Auden hoped – in vain, as it turned out – that his friend Benjamin Britten would set For the Time Being to music; instead, during that same dark period, Britten created a modern yuletide classic of his own with A Ceremony of Carols. This year’s Rejoice! program shows us the different ways in which composers attempt to override the default skepticism of the adult and reawaken a spirit of joy. Aside from Vaughan Williams’s arrangements of traditional carols, all of this music is less than 100 years old, yet its respective composers have found various strategies to hint at a far-away legendary past that is nonetheless ever present in its relevance.
Just a little over two weeks past the official 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten – appropriately, it fell on November 22, feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music – we pay tribute with a work that originated in the pivotal year 1942, when he returned to his native England after a brief period of exile in the United States (see sidebar). A Ceremony of Carols thus shares something with the more ambitious Peter Grimes in that both epitomize Britten’s turn “away from the cosmopolitanism of the 1930s towards English musical and cultural traditions” and “from ideals of cosmopolitan art to local culture,” as Heather Wiebe puts it in her recent book Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction.
Much as was the case with Peter Grimes, Britten alighted on the idea for Ceremony after happening upon a poetry anthology edited by Gerald Bullett, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, from which he culled several poems in Middle English to set to music. The idea for Grimes itself – whose triumphant premiere in 1945 would make him an international figure – had motivated Britten to reconnect with his English roots.
During his sea voyage across the Atlantic back to his homeland in 1942, Britten drafted his first version of what would become A Ceremony of Carols (and also composed the Hymn to St. Cecilia, with which it shares stylistic traits). Unusually, he did so without a specific commission but completed the work in time for his first Christmas back in wartime England, where Ceremony was premiered by the women of the Fleet Street Choir and later received its first London performance at the National Gallery. Britten’s initial scoring was for women’s voices, but he decided that the sound of boys’ treble voices could better convey his musical portrayal of child-like innocence and published the score for the latter; along with these alternate versions for women or boys’ chorus (or a mixture), yet a third option exists for regular mixed chorus. This performance uses the scoring for women’s chorus. Biographer Humphrey Carpenter observes that the idea of adding a solo harp as accompaniment may have been suggested by Britten’s intention to work on a harp concerto around this time.
To frame his selection of medieval poems, Britten slightly alters the unison plainchant hymn “Hodie Christus natus est”, which is normally used during the Christmas Eve Vespers as an antiphon for the Magnificat. The poems themselves outline familiar elements of the Nativity narrative, though with the kind of elliptical approach we find in such recent works as John Adams’s El Niño. Carpenter puts forth an interpretation that the work isn’t so much a motley collection of Christmas “carols” as “a ceremony of innocence,” with deliberate reference to the famous poem of Yeats, “The Second Coming,” which Britten quotes in his opera The Turn of the Screw (“The ceremony of innocence is drowned”). In other words, Carpenter views it as an allegorical portrayal of childhood innocence – centered around the idealized relationship of mother and son – which must eventually be lost.
Britten’s irrepressible imagination ensures maximal variety even with such a spare sonic palette, while his craft unifies the cycle through motivic and harmonic ideas. The “rocking” two-note figure in “Wolcum Yole!” is an important one, while the first part of the melody to “There is no Rose” echoes the chant. With “That Yongë Child” the solo voice steps forward for the first time to the harp’s accompaniment, crystallizing Britten’s ability to reference an “ancient” sound while at the same time tweaking the sonority with “modernist” touches. Its complement is the beautiful lullaby of “Balulalow,” for which the chorus joins in.
To the deceptively simple homophonic textures of the first songs are added the basic polyphony of canonic echoing – a sound of verdant wonder – in “As Dew in Aprille.” With its remarkable text depicting the baby Jesus preparing to confront Satan in “This Little Babe,” Britten ends the first part of the cycle with a climactic three-part canon. The longest individual piece is the interlude for solo harp which follows, presenting a dreamier – or more visionary – reflection on material from the opening chant.
Solo voices return to the landscape for Robert Southwell’s “In Freezing Winter Night,” with its novel harmonies and icy harp accompaniment to depict the bleakness of the picture surrounding the Nativity. (Puccini also realized the effectiveness of spare harp harmonies to draw a musical picture of a winter scene in the third act of La bohème.) Two solo voices remain in the spotlight for its counterpart, the “Spring Carol” by William Cornish, in which the harp’s repeated figures graphically suggest a burst of joy. The final song, “Deo Gracias” (also known as “Adam Lay ibounden”) incites the fullest choral volume of the cycle at this musical interpretation of the idea of the “felix culpa” (the “happy fall”): that, as Carpenter describes it, “without the Fall of Man there would be nothing, no Christian story, no love, no life, no art.”
Given the overplay of certain yuletide season evergreens, it’s all the harder to account for the relative neglect of such a seasonal gem as Ottorino Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity. (Naturally, it featured on the Master Chorale’s very first holiday program back in 1965.) Best known for his symphonic trilogy of evocative tone paintings of his beloved Rome, Respighi had a remarkably diverse career, writing a number of operas and theater works as well. His stint playing viola for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg brought the young Italian into contact with master colorist Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Respighi profited handsomely by cultivating his own ear for subtle colors and sonic textures.
Another key interest was Respighi’s rediscovery of the musical riches of the pre-Classical and even pre-Baroque past. Stylized imitations of medieval and Renaissance sources permeate the Christmas cantata Laud to the Nativity. He completed this work in 1930, scoring it for mixed chorus, three solo vocalists, piano four hands (i.e., two pianists at the same keyboard), and a small wind band.
For his text, Respighi selected poetry by the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi. Born not long after St. Francis’s death and, like the saintly founder of his order, a rebel against corruption in the Church, Todi wrote a series of popular laudi (poems of religious praise) in his native Umbrian. Dante later counted among his fans, and Todi was also a significant figure in the history of theater, dramatizing stories from the Gospels. Todi’s laudi in particular express Franciscan compassion for the downtrodden. A prime example is the Laud to the Nativity, which emphasizes the poverty of the shepherds and Mary herself as it recounts the story of Jesus’ birth from their point of view.
Respighi in turn uses a modest, economically scored and archaically flavored musical vocabulary to elicit this backdrop of serene pastoral innocence. At the very beginning, the winds play a gentle, lilting rhythm: even as the angel announces the good news, this music foregrounds the shepherds’ perspective. Respighi introduces other devices that touchingly telegraph their humanity: listen for the humming chorus as accompaniment to the high tenor shepherd, the choral sotto voce of praise, the earthy rhythms with which the shepherds convey their fear that they are too “unclean” to touch the infant. After so much restraint, the impact of the full chorale rejoicing toward the end in an outburst of counterpoint is all the more effective.
Nature is ever present in the blossoming figurations of the accompanying woodwinds. Respighi’s straightforward lyricism adds poignancy to the mezzo’s portrayal of Mary – even the monotone setting of her final prayer, which reverts to the simple mood of the opening, is highly expressive. Respighi’s score allows for Laud to the Nativity to be staged as a kind of pageant play as well. In a concert performance, the beguiling, unaffected human touches of his music suggest the freshness of frescos by Giotto put to sound.
Much as literary scholars had started to write down folk tales for fear they would face extinction in the modern era, Ralph Vaughan Williams numbers among the notable composers of the past century who drew renewed attention to indigenous traditions of folk music – a treasure long taken for granted. Like Bartók, the English composer dedicated himself to collecting and recording folk songs in the field. The experience translated into his own music not necessarily through literal quotations but as a more general ethos, a way of conceiving tunes and word settings.
Agnostic though he was, Vaughan Williams also pursued this interest in native English sacred music as well. Already in 1906 he co-edited the English Hymnal, and in 1928 he did the same for the Oxford Book of Carols. The composer also turned to carols for a special project during the First World War, in 1917, when he was serving with the First Ambulance Unit in Greece. His wife Ursula later recollected that Vaughan Williams arranged a set of carols for his men to sing against a spectacular landscape: “[No one could forget] the carol singing on Christmas Eve: snow-capped Olympus, the clear night, the stars, and Ralph’s choir singing carols of Hereford and Sussex with passionate nostalgia. The choir made that Christmas so far from home one that had a special quality, a special beauty, long remembered.”
We hear the first four carols from this set. The arrangements for male chorus offer a neat balance to the sonority of the Britten selection. Vaughan Williams has moreover chosen bona fide traditional carols, though some are less well known today. “God rest you merry” – somehow so cheering despite its minor mode – has a parallel moment of literary fame thanks to Charles Dickens’s allusion to it in A Christmas Carol (when a misfortunate group of carolers discovers Scrooge is not in the mood for their singing). The “Cherry Tree Carol” is a very old medieval carol based on an apocryphal Gospel story and was later anthologized by the American folklorist Francis James Child. “The Mummers’ Carol” from Sussex stems from the performances by mummers – seasonal troupes of folk actors – and served as a kind of blessing to send the spectators back on their way. Beginning with a bass solo, “The First Nowell” is one of the most famous of traditional carols, beautifully harmonized by Vaughan Williams for male voices.
“I am pleased to have been a composer who can satisfy all kinds, somewhat in the fashion of a Benjamin Britten,” Stephen Paulus once said. He made this remark several years ago during an interview by Minnesota Public Radio looking back over his career. It’s been impressively prolific and varied – up until the tragic event of this past summer, when Paulus suffered a major stroke that has left him to date in a coma. His catalogue, tallying over 450 compositions, encompasses large-scale choral and orchestral works, operas and chamber works, as well as pieces for community groups and young musicians. And along with his own creative work, Paulus has long been a generous and powerful advocate for fellow composers. In 1973 he cofounded the American Composers Forum, the largest composer service organization in the world.
Much sought-after as a composer, Paulus has been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – to list just some of the leading institutions for which he has written. A significant composer of opera as well, Paulus, who studied with Dominick Argento at the University of Minnesota, has composed a dozen works for the stage – from the frequently revived The Postman Always Rings Twice (1982) to his recent one-act opera, The Shoemaker, based on a Leo Tolstoy short story.
Christmas Dances – a new addition to the Master Chorale’s repertoire with this program – is a relatively recent work. Commissioned for the 30th anniversary of the Arkansas Chamber Singers, it received its premiere on December 12, 2008, by that ensemble under conductor and artistic director John Erwin. Paulus’s gifts as a choral composer became especially apparent in To Be Certain of the Dawn, his large-scale oratorio in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. As an admirer of his choral writing, Erwin asked Paulus to write a three-movement Christmas piece with some connection to dance (the theme of the Arkansas Chamber Singers’ programming for that anniversary year) – otherwise leaving the specifics up to the composer.
As Paulus became enmeshed in the project, it expanded by one movement in order to allow for the right balance. The composer explains in an interview with Eric E. Harrison shortly before the world premiere, “I could see in advance that two movements would be more moderato, but as I went on the balance didn’t seem right. And it didn’t seem right to have the first two movements be moderato and then follow with a quick one.”
Like Britten, Paulus selected his own gathering of Christmas-related poems, drawing on and adapting texts by Jonathan Rist (1607-1667), Timothy Swan (1758-1842), Christopher Smart (1722-1771), and Ben Jonson (1572/3-1637). Paulus likewise resorts to the appealing combination of harp with chorus – here full mixed chorus – while adding solo flute to provide additional color. (The third song, “The Nativity of Our Lord,” is set a cappella.) Even on this smaller scale, his ample gift for dramatic, for the telling detail, animates the score. Particular hallmarks of Paulus’s style are the joyful rhythmic vigor of “Methinks I Hear the Heavíns Resound” and the exultant tonal shifts of the final song, which sets words by the Jacobean poet and playwright Ben Jonson, “On the Nativity of Our Savior.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
Britten’s Return to England
In the spring of 1942, he and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, set sail on a Swedish cargo ship from New York back to the Old World. At the time, Britten was working on his setting of Auden’s poem Hymn to St. Cecilia and a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman (never completed), but his manuscripts were confiscated by customs agents before the journey had started – out of concern that, as a possible secret agent mysteriously heading back to war-torn England, the composer might have encoded important military secrets within his notes. On top of this, the first leg of the journey was impossibly protracted, with drawn-out delays along the English coast and in Halifax (where the composer found The English Galaxy in a bookshop). The ocean voyage itself – with a convoy accompanying them – involved the very real threat of German U-boats, while the ship’s tight quarters brought them into continual contact with lots of “callow, foul-mouthed, witless recruits,” as Pears recalled. But amid these discouraging conditions Britten enjoyed a creative outburst; as he laconically put it, “one had to alleviate the boredom.”