By Peter Rutenberg
In the ancient liturgy of Christmas, the story is told of three kings who travel from afar. Each carries a gift to the starlit stable in Bethlehem. Any one of us could name what they brought, but why? Gold, a precious metal, has retained its significance as a sign of wealth and standard of exchange. Frankincense (or “pure incense” from Old French) was the rare aromatic gum resin extracted from the species Boswellia sacra, a tree native to the south Arabian peninsula and surrounding areas, prized for its milky white color and scent: burning frankincense was a gesture of homage. Myrrh is a thorny bush, native to Somalia and Yemen, which exudes a reddish resin used in perfumes and medicines. What these three share is their difficulty and expense to obtain, that they were brought from a great distance and at some effort, by a person of great stature. In other words they were treasures.
Our holiday traditions include the gathering in of family and friends, special foods and music, worship, and gift giving — a perpetuation in effect of what took place at the Nativity. The intervening twenty centuries and our fast-paced modern lives have sometimes masked the value and meaning of this celebration. Yet 2001 is different for so many cloudy reasons, whose silver linings might just be this: for a moment, we set aside the outside world, warm our hands by the pine-scented fire, taste the sweets and spices of this season, observe the glow of candles in the dancing eyes of children, pay homage to the spirit of renewal, and sing for joy — truly making this, as in olden times, A Holiday to Treasure.
The Canticle of Mary, more commonly known by its Latin first word, “Magnificat,” is a key feature of the evening service in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Polyphonic settings based on plainchant began to be composed during the early Renaissance, reaching a full flowering in the pageantry of Monteverdi’s Venice. Some of these Magnificats were still in use in the Lutheran Church of the early 18th century. Johann Sebastian Bach developed a keen interest in Latin polyphony beginning in his early 20s in Weimar, where he was apparently afforded a good deal of spare time for ‘research and development,’ not to mention the procreation of six children. His studies of the music of Caldara, Lotti, and Palestrina, among others, inspired some ten years later a remarkable accomplishment, for the history of the Magnificat reached its zenith with Bach’s monumental setting of this text in 1723. It was first scored in the key of E-flat and bore four interpolations for Christmas, based on well-known Lutheran chorales. Five years later, he revised it down to the key of D, omitting the holiday dressing, and thus making it suitable for any festive occasion.
Bach’s strong sense of architecture — which achieved its greatest expression in the Mass in B Minor begun the following year, but not assembled until the last years of his life — is well in evidence in the Magnificat in D. In keeping with the concertato style established in the age of Monteverdi, Bach extracts from his five-part chorus a quintet of soloists, according them a dazzling array of vocal pyrotechnics and variously-colored instruments to complement them. Following a refined and sculpted arch-form, dependent on a specific succession of interrelated keys, the chorus and soloists are assigned in turn to verses based on their appropriateness to the mood of the text.
So many settings of the Magnificat have been written that they constitute a sub-genre. The powerful text with its rich imagery inspired from composers through the ages a veritable compendium on how to handle its every nuance. The 12-verse structure did the same for thematic development. Bach’s opening fanfare-theme returns at the usual point in the Gloria Patri to underscore “...as it was in the beginning.” This kind of musical pun, initiated some 300 years earlier, would have originally been taken as an “inside joke” for the performers. By the time Bach does it, it is more like paying homage to a stylistic trait long since canonized: it was simply the way it was done. In the Esurientes Bach’s genius offers a subtle gesture in this vein: portraying God’s ‘dismissal of the rich empty-handed’ with the musical equivalent of a lump of coal, he ends the movement with a lone bass-note, leaving the flute duo hanging on their penultimate chord.
San Francisco-based American composer Conrad Susa is featured with two works on this program, The Chanticleer’s Carol, and A Christmas Garland which concludes the program. Based on a poem by Austin from 1626, which recalls Marcellus’ speech from Hamlet I:2 concerning the legend of the rooster whose Christmas Eve vigil is thought to banish evil spirits, The Chanticleer’s Carol from 1981 uses antiphonal choruses, the first representing the “heavenly powers” and the second the “earthly.” Brief flourishes of counterpoint contrast with a broad chordal style and martial rhythms to herald the “righteousness” of the Nativity.
Witold Lutoslawski is one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. Born in Warsaw before World War I, he was able to develop his musical talents in spite of eastern Europe’s worsening political difficulties and has gone on to build important and long-lasting relationships with prominent orchestras and soloists around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic which premiered his Fourth Symphony in 1993. Franciscan monks are believed to have introduced Latin Christmas songs to Poland in the 13th century. Over the next three centuries a strong tradition of stories emphasizing the symbolism of the manger and the humble birth of the infant Jesus arose in the vernacular. Lutoslawski drew on 19th century collections of these traditional carols for his 1946 cycle of Twenty Polish Christmas Carols scored for solo voice and piano, orchestrating 17 of them in 1985 and the remaining three in 1990. The melodies are, for the most part, intact, while, as English translator Charles Bodman Rae suggests, “the accompaniments display a high degree of ingenuity and invention which places them more on the level of miniature compositional studies than mere arrangements.”
Politics and war, for their destructive part, have had a profoundly inspiring effect on choral composers in the 20th century: Britten penned his Hymn to St. Cecilia on a ship in the North Atlantic and Kodály his Missa Brevis in a Budapest convent — both during the darkest days of World War II. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ wife Ursula recalls her husband’s cobbling together a “choir” from his Field Ambulance unit in Greece in 1917: “Another experience, which no one who was there forgot, was carol singing on Christmas Eve: snow-capped Olympus, the clear night, the stars, and Ralph’s choir singing carols...with passionate nostalgia. The choir made that Christmas so far from home one that had a special quality, a special beauty, long remembered.” Such are the miracles of this season.
Well, what is Christmas without a few surprises? As the old jazz standard goes, “Everything old is new again.” The irrepressible American composer Jackson Berkey knows a thing or two about charming an audience. His Anniversary Carols, so named for the occasion on which he presented them to his wife, Almeda, music director of Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum in Omaha, Nebraska, reflect a respect for tradition with a healthy dose of rhythmic playfulness and melodic wit.
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 it 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.”