By Peter Rutenberg
En casa. Chez nous. Heim. Domi. Babayit. Hjemme. Uchi. Gartre. I ka hale.* No matter how we say it, or where we find it, HOME is the place most of us want to be at this very special time of year. Whether we celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, we seek to have it with our family and friends. Even if in October we groan at the first strains of Muzak carols, or wince at the first assault of commercialism on our diminishing daylight hours, by mid-December the sweet smell of seasonal spices permeates our surroundings, awakens our childhood memories of holidays past, and disposes our desire to reclaim the closeness and comfort of what is most familiar and dear to us. The friendly warmth and soul-satisfying spirit of this wonderful program - a heartfelt gift from Maestro Salamunovich, his Master Chorale and Sinfonia - is our ticket Home for the Holidays! (*Home in Spanish, French, German, Latin, Hebrew, Danish, Japanese, Welsh and Hawaiian.)
The journey begins in the sonic splendor of Lara Hoggard's festive setting of Personent Hodie - a familiar processional tune dating from the 13th century. The instrumental introduction leads to the unison entrance of the chorus, harmonized briefly in three parts at times. Each of the four verses receives a special treatment, befitting their text, while maintaining the rhythmic drive and modal flavor established at the start.
From the Golden Age of Polyphony comes a favorite "noel" motet for double choir, Hodie Christus natus est, by the famed Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525- 1594). A citizen of Rome for most of his life, Palestrina had achieved a monumental stature by his death, with posts at St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, and Sistine Chapel, and maintained a continuous stream of publications. His immense output includes over a hundred Masses, settings of the Magnficat in all the modes, offices, hymns, motets of every size and shape, and a small but impressive group of secular pieces. A melodist par excellence, Palestrina serves up a joyful sequence of tunes in this Hodie, with choirs divided by color - high voices in one, low voices in the other. With customary elegance and restraint, he merges the forces briefly only at phrase endings, the word Gloria, and for the Noe refrains.
A few generations after Palestrina, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) can be found raising the roof at Wolfenbüttel with his prolific collections of large-scale vocal and instrumental works, and invaluable treatises on the musical practices of the day. Raised a strict Lutheran, his early contact with Schlitz through the Dresden Court exposed Praetorius to the latest vogues of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi, which he exploited thoroughly in his German chorale-based oeuvre. In the nine volumes of the Musae Sionae ("Muses of Zion"), one sees a rich development from the simplest four-part treatments to the fullest expanse of coloristic pageantry with several choirs. The justly beloved Christmas tune In dulci jubilo appears in Part II, in a setting for two choirs, marked by harmonic grandeur and regal flourishes.
The "great mystery" of the Nativity has proved an image of powerful inspiration among composers over the last thousand years, up to and including our very own Morten Lauridsen's 1994 setting. In 1952, however, it was Francis Poulenc's (1899-1963) turn to pen the O magnum mysterium which he did along with three other well-known Latin texts to make his Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noel. A somewhat raucous life-style and the senseless death of a dear friend gave the French composer pause in 1935 to reconsider his spirituality, and the result was a number of sacred works, including the Gloria and Stabat Mater. Interestingly, Poulenc's musical "voice" was virtually unchanged, thus, the hallmark angularities of his terse, bold gestures, and a penchant for acerbic harmonies, whether in the service of wry jocularity or gut-wrenching grief, remained forceful features of his composition. He portrays the "mystery" of this motet by pitting the low, dark tones of the rest of the choir against the searing, soaring soprano, in a potent series of short, repeated phrases, ending in a mood of muted joy.
Hugo Distler's tragically short life (1908-1942) was marked by an intense interest in the Baroque era. Although he frequently explored the dissonant extremes of tonal music, his tender arrangement of the favorite German chorale, Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, recalls not only the original Praetorius version, but also the linear independence of 14th century motets. Moreover, the first two verses of Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming are set to the same music, while the third is different, in a throwback even further to the ballade form (a-a-b) common among the Troubadours, Trouveres and Minnesingers of 12th century Europe.
London-born Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880-1968) toiled most of his life in relative obscurity from his base at St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. A prolific composer of Anglican service music, his comprehensive appreciation of music's legacy - and his dedication to convincing emotional context and strong musical content - yield works that are masterful in every sense. Willan's setting of the Laurence Housman text, The Three Kings, is remarkable for its concise depiction of the arrival of the Magi in dramatic narrative and choral dialogue. Divided only in six parts until the final phrase, the chorus delivers a surpassing richness of color and harmony, creating a stirring snapshot of this singular moment.
By contrast, the lilting simplicity of Max Reger's (1873-1916) Mariä Wiegenlied (or The Virgin's Slumber Song) takes as its inspiration the old Johann Walter lullaby chorale Joseph dearest, joseph mine with some variation of melody and harmony. The chorus is scored as a four-part hymn with instrumental interjections.
The brilliant composer Jonathan Willcocks' 1997 Magnificat is composed for chorus, orchestra and treble solo, and is conceived as a five-movement work using the standard Magnificat text, with interpolations of the Ave Maria and There is no rose of such virtue. The soloist is heard in the second movement, continuing in Latin as the chorus intones the Ave Maria in English, and returns at the beginning of the fourth movement to sing the medieval English carol above a unison chorus. Here, the writing becomes more active and contrapuntal, leading to the ecstatic return of the opening Magnificat and directly into the finale - a joyous conclusion to the program's first half.
A trio of charming works of English provenance opens the second half: first, William Walton's playful setting of a 16th century text by Richard Hill, What Cheer? Next, a sonorous arrangement of the well-known Shaker tune Simple Gifts by Bob Chilcott, with new text by Tony Isaacs, originally written for The King's Singers and retitled The Gift. And, the perennially cherished, My Dancing Day, as arranged by Alice Parker and the late Robert Shaw.
A lovely pairing of a favorite text (A Spotless Rose), set as a descant to a favorite carol (Away In A Manger), distinguishes this excerpt from Jonathan Willcocks' cantata Christ Is Born. It is followed by the gentle chiming of the late Angelena composer Elinor Remick Warren's Christmas Candle, written some six decades ago. The soprano section takes the lead in Los Angeles composer James Fritschel's arrangement of the traditional German lullaby carol, Still, Still, Still. A harmonic tapestry underscores this work, and the appearance of the melody in the men's voices heralds its tranquil conclusion. Mary's Little Boy Chile (Calypso Christmas) was conceived as an original Christmas Spiritual, based on West-Indian rhythms, by the indefatigable Jester Hairston. The late Mel Torme's beautifully crafted A Christmas Song reminds us of the true meaning of Home for the Holidays.
San Francisco composer Conrad Susa wrote A Christmas Garland on a commission from the Cantari Singers of Columbus, Ohio, where the work was premiered in 1988. The composer describes the work in these words: "A glittering orchestral ritornello with cries of 'Noel' garlands the verses of God Rest Ye Merry, in which the angels announce the principal message of comfort and joy. The orchestra dances into The Holly and the Ivy but the chorus sings I Saw Three Ships, asking 'what was in those ships all three?' The answer, according to an old legend, is given by the men: We Three Kings. Arriving at the manger, the Kings find the Child being soothed by The Coventry Carol. The audience, awestruck at first, joins the choral adorations with O Come All Ye Faithful. Celebration breaks out in Joy to the World, humorously deconstructed to show its relationship to several of Handel's works. The ritornello with its 'Noels,' now all embracing and triumphant, concludes the work."