In Sweet Jubilation: The Old & the Young Meet Up in Festive Holiday Music
By Thomas May
Senex puerum portabat/Puer autem senem regebat: “The old man held up the boy, but the boy upheld the old man.” Set to unforgettable music by the likes of William Byrd and Palestrina, this text comes from an antiphon marking the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple: an old man (the “righteous and devout” Simeon) greets the Holy Family in the Temple 40 days after the birth of Jesus and rejoices in proclaiming the significance of the newborn.
An arresting image that subverts the expected order of the young deferring to the old, Senex puerum might also serve as a commentary on the theme of this year’s Rejoice! program. The selections we hear this evening juxtapose the old with the new, storied carols with their rebirth in festive music created by composers of today.
It was in 1605 that William Byrd published his two settings of Senex puerum (one each for four and five parts) as part of the first volume of Gradualia, his compilation of music for the major feasts of the liturgical calendar. Around this time his Italian peer Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1555-1612) was nearing the end of his career as composer and organist at the great Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Known as La Serenissima (for the “Most Serene Republic of Venice”), that city became an epicenter for the transformation of styles from the High Renaissance to the Baroque. The stylistic signature of Gabrieli’s Venetian music was to divide the choirs of vocalists and/or instrumentalists into multiple groups, which performed from different locations within the vast Byzantine-Gothic architecture of San Marco. This aesthetically powerful idea of spatial music
had a practical origin, since the long sound decay favored antiphonal singing/playing.
Over in the Habsburg Empire during this time, Jacob Handl (1550-1591) — also known as Jacobus Gallus — was an enormously prolific composer writing for the Counter-Reformation in Bohemia and using the choral idioms of the Venetian High Renaissance. The sacred carol Resonet in laudibus, however, is a relatively straightforward setting that draws on the block harmonies and sense of sonic weight of the massed choristers.
In 1597 Gabrieli released one of the most influential publications in music history — its influence enhanced by the new technology of printing — titled Sacrae Symphoniae: an ambitious anthology of instrumental and choral pieces that display a range of adventurous composition in the Venetian polychoral style of divided choirs (cori spezzati). This collection contains the Christmas motet Hodie Christus natus est, which we hear along with another example of Gabrieli’s musical splendor appropriate for the season: Angelus ad pastores ait.
These Gabrieli pieces showcase his polychoral technique in spectacular fashion, with the accompanying brass choirs contributing to the effect of a kind of early-music surround sound. Contrasts of soft and loud, as well as of instrumental weight and register, conjure an illusion of space — comparable to the development of dramatic visual perspective perfected by the Italian Renaissance painters.
The conductor Robert King points to the connections between ecclesiastical and civic life in Venice, where the Feast of Christmas “demanded some of the grandest and most spectacular music of all.” King quotes from a report by a French ambassador visiting the city in 1607 and marveling “that at St. Mark’s there were more than one thousand candles, sixty huge torches and silver lamps, together with eight choirs of voices and instruments ‘filling the church with a grand harmony.’”
A former singer with the LA Master Chorale, Paul Gibson (b. 1952) can also claim a connection to former music director Paul Salamunovich (1927-2014) going even further back: a native Californian, Gibson sang under the late Salamunovich as early as high school and studied with him at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles. For the recent Golden Jubilee of the choral program founded by Salamunovich at Loyola Marymount University, Gibson was commissioned to write a large-scale setting of the Te Deum for chorus and orchestra (which premiered there this past May).
A large portion of Gibson’s work as a composer reflects his lifelong love of choral singing. At a young age growing up in rural France, he became enchanted by his encounters with the authentic tradition of Gregorian chant, a Salamunovich specialty.
Gibson wrote Rejoice in the Lord Alway in 2005 in response to a request by the Orange County-based Mastersingers Chorus for contemporary versions of Renaissance motets. “Despite what they were seeking, I became obsessed with the idea of expanding this already existing Renaissance masterpiece,” recalls Gibson.
The source in question is a four-part a cappella anthem from the 16th century attributed to a number of English Renaissance composers (though its actual authorship remains unknown). Gibson realized he could extend its imitative textures into a piece for eight-part choir, adding a complementary choral elaboration of the pre-existing counterpoint. He later crafted versions that distribute the new choral parts to a quartet of brass instruments or organ so as to make the new piece more practically performable.
Rejoice in the Lord Alway uses the rhythms, intervals, and motifs of the original hymn as the material for the second choir, in the form of echoes (or pre-echoes) of the source material. It’s the perfect musical image for the iterative nature of the act of “re-joicing” itself.
Unlike his usual compositional approach, Gibson intended his piece “to sound like it was written at the same time as the original, not like a Stravinsky piece that takes something and makes it his own. I’m playing the part of an ‘anonymous composer’ from the English Renaissance here.”
William Byrd’s Senex Puerum cast a lasting spell on a young chorister growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, in the early 1990s. Nico Muhly (b. 1981) once told NPR that he recalled singing this motet and “freaking out about how beautiful it was.”
In 2008 Muhly paid homage to his inspiration by composing his own setting of the Senex Puerum Portabat text for brass and voices on a commission from the Guggenheim Museum for its performing arts series Works & Process. Grant Gershon and the LA Master Chorale included Muhly’s version of the motet on its all-Muhly recording A Good Understanding (2010), which inaugurated their relationship with the prestigious Decca label. (It was also Decca’s first recording made in Walt Disney Concert Hall.)
Muhly notes that as soon as he had an opportunity to pen a Christmas anthem of his own, “I rushed at the chance to set the same text,” to which he added “a brighter text at the end”: the Gloria in excelsis Deo, which he initially sets with the singers and brass quintet deliberately not-coordinated in time so as to mimic the sensation of “speaking-in-tongues” and to evoke an “ecstatic” state.
“My setting uses two kinds of repetition,” writes the composer: “metered, controlled pulses in the first half of the piece, and then wild, uncontrolled voices singing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo.’ The piece ends with a gentle set of Alleluias, a sort of postpartum comedown with gently lilting altos.”
For another relationship between the festive Christmas tradition and a contemporary composer’s take on it, we hear composer and singer Shawn Kirchner’s (b. 1970) Behold New Joy: Ancient Carols of Christmas. A longstanding tenor with the Master Chorale and its Swan Family Composer in Residence from 2012 to 2015, Kirchner was commissioned to write Behold New Joy as a suite of Latin carols in 2011, which he was later requested by Oxford University Press to publish in two additional versions (one for chorus and full orchestra, the other for chorus and organ). The instrumentation of Kirchner’s original version, which we hear this evening — mixed choir, brass, percussion and organ — was suggested by Gershon with a view to performing the new suite on the same program as John Rutter’s contemporary classic Gloria (which we also hear tonight).
The source Kirchner used for Behold New Joy is Piae Cantiones (“Pious Songs”), a medieval Latin carol book compiled by a Finnish cleric and published in 1582 (meaning many of them circulated for hundreds of years before that date). Not merely an “arrangement,” Kirchner describes Behold New Joy as a fantasia on Christmas carol melodies. “To the scholar of the music of Christmas, nothing is more exciting than happening upon an obscure, nearly forgotten carol that still breathes with life,” he writes. “For centuries, such carols have been dusted off, reshaped, and shared anew, bringing fresh bursts of Christmas joy to the festivities of the season.”
The transfer of Piae Cantiones into the English-speaking world represents one such example. The British ambassador to Sweden, G.J.R. Gordon, introduced Dickensian London to a rare original copy of the now-centuries-old Piae Cantiones. Retooled with fresh translations of some of the texts or borrowing their tunes for others, in 1853 it was published (with the collaboration of hymnographer John Mason Neale) as Carols for Christmastide.
As an admitted folk song and carol “junkie,” Kirchner says that he is intrigued by seeing what kinds of melodies and texts last through the centuries. A related phenomenon is the genre of popular carols that seem to have always existed but that in fact began to circulate in a particular culture — English and American, in this case — only since the 19th century. A fine example of the latter is “Good Christian Men Rejoice” (“In dulci jubilo”), which came into being as an English carol only through the Carols for Christmastide publication. For his suite, Kirchner reverts to the original macaronic text of the carol (a blend of German and Latin) that dates back to the 14th century.
Behold New Joy additionally incorporates other carols gathered in Piae Cantiones that were initially associated with occasions outside the Yuletide season: “Personent Hodie” (sung as an Easter carol, “Let the Song Be Begun,” which was later arranged by Gustav Holst as “On this Day Earth Shall Ring”) and “Divinum mysterium” (originally a communion hymn, which became the carol “Of a Father’s Love Begotten”). Another is the seemingly timeless “Good King Wenceslas,” which, like “In dulci jubilo,” is a relatively recent conflation of elements. It marries Neale’s new lyrics to the spring carol melody “Tempus adest floridum.” Notes Kirchner: “His new carol’s ancient melody and sturdy rhymes have fooled many into thinking it must have been sung for hundreds of years.”
As for the title carol of the suite, which in Latin is “Ecce novum gaudium,” Kirchner explains that this is one of the few carols introduced by the Gordon-Neale anthology “that failed to catch on in English” — even though, until just a few decades before, “the carol was still popular enough to be a highlight of Finnish school Christmas pageants, with all the schoolboys singing and dancing to it. Perhaps Neale’s translation ‘Here is Joy for Every Age’ lacked the zest of the original Latin; when one returns to Piae Cantiones, the carol’s lively language practically leaps off the page.” Kirchner adds: “Such vivid life is a testament to both the inspiring power of the nativity story and the power of art to speak across the generations, ensuring that the ‘new joy’ of ‘ancient carols’ will continue to be known for many, many Christmases to come.”
The American composer Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was a leading figure in choral music of the last half-century as well as an influential teacher, organist, conductor, and advocate of pre-Baroque traditions. His pedigree encompasses such mentors as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger — from whose examples, it will be no surprise, Pinkham gravitated toward a style of musical clarity, practicality and elegant transparency.
This clarity is immediately apparent in the Christmas Cantata, which Pinkham composed in 1957 in part to express his admiration for medieval and Renaissance music. Pinkham scores this compact piece in three movements (subtitled Sinfonia Sacra, in allusion to Gabrieli) for chorus accompanied by a pair of brass choirs. (An alternate version was also published for single brass choir with organ substituting for the second choir.) In addition to his subtitle, Pinkham’s outer movements pay homage to the glorious polychoral style of Giovanni Gabrieli’s music for San Marco.
The first movement (“Quem vidistis, pastores?”) uses the Latin liturgical text that depicts the shepherds’ joyful account of seeing “the newborn child and choirs of angels.” In a solemn, majestic opening, the chorus questions the shepherds, who respond with rhythms of playful exuberance, almost tripping over their words in excitement; the quiet closing comes as a surprise.
The great prayer text “O Magnum Mysterium” (“O Great Mystery”) — traditionally associated with the morning liturgy of the hours celebrated on Christmas Day — inspires an elate Adagio that shows Pinkham’s penchant for plainchant. Beginning with women’s voices alone, he enhances the mood of rapt contemplation, while a haunting phrase is passed back and forth from trumpet to organ. The final movement interpolates the opening words of the “Gloria” as a refrain within passages from the Psalms. Pinkham’s festive combination of fanfares and catchy Renaissance dance rhythms builds into an unstoppable wave of jubilation.
A native of London, John Rutter (b. 1945) ranks among the most esteemed and influential composers active in today’s choral scene. Along with composing, he has had widespread success as an arranger, producer, and conductor (his own group, the Cambridge Singers, has been singing under his direction since 1981). His music has been heard at such state occasions as Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton (This Is the Day).
Gloria, perhaps the best known of all Rutter’s works, was commissioned by the Voices of Mel Olson, Omaha, Nebraska, and premiered during the composer’s first visit to the United States in May 1974. Choral settings of the Gloria — the hymn which follows the Kyrie in the Roman Rite — appear most frequently in the context of settings of the Mass, yet Rutter wrote his setting as a freestanding concert work. Like Kirchner’s Behold New Joy, Gloria is scored for chorus, brass, percussion and organ.
Cast in three separate movements, Rutter’s monumental setting adapts one of the plethora of Gregorian chants to which the text would have originally been sung. First, though, we hear a rousing instrumental prelude of brass and percussion. Vivid rhythms and harmonic colors lay out the material that reappears as commentary between the chorus’s chant-like lines of praise.
The middle movement, the longest, slows the tempo for an introspective turn. Extended instrumental passages (first for organ alone, playing filigreed figures, and later accompanied by an elegiac brass choir) are important elements in its texture. After a triumphal passage recognizing the “King of Heaven,” the music subsides and darkens to depict “the sins of the world.” But vigorous rhythmic impulses bring back the brightness of the opening for the final movement, with even springier syncopations — this is joy that evokes a physical response. Rutter livens the music further by alternately writing call-and-response as well as contrapuntal textures for the chorus. The first movement’s chant theme returns for a final triumphant statement, punctuated by pealing fanfares bound to leave performers and audience breathless.
As if this weren’t sufficiently jubilant, our program concludes with the Carols for Brass and Choir so winningly arranged by the British composer, organist, and choral director Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015). Active up until his 90s — he died only this past September — Willcocks was a living embodiment of English choral tradition and its role in public life. Having trained while still a boy as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, where he sang for the likes of Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, he exerted tremendous influence during his tenure as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge from the 1950s to the 1970s. John Rutter, who numbered among his students, writes that Willcocks “has transformed our musical celebration of Christmas, and it’s hard to imagine now what it must have been like in the BCC era” (before Carols for Choirs, the legendary publication Willcocks edited for Oxford University Press).
The examples we hear include three carol arrangements for mixed chorus and organ, along with two fanfares as interludes: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (tune likely from the 18th century, composer unknown); “The First Nowell” (traditional English carol); and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (adapted to Felix Mendelssohn’s immortal melody, with descant and organ part by Willcocks). With a bright concluding chord of G major for the last number, the note of jubilation resounds — and the promise of “peace on earth and mercy mild” is sounded once again.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.