by Richard H. Trame, SJ, Ph.D.
The superb Hodie Christus Natus Est is the chant antiphon to the Magnificat portion of the Vespers service conducted at Christmas. In a concert setting it has served to introduce the universal rejoicing of the Christmas festival. This chant does indeed provide the melodic substance for innumerable motet settings even today.
One such setting appeared in 1619 when the great Dutch composer Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562- 1621) published Cantiones Sacra, scored for five voices. His scintillating development of the chant antiphon, one of 37 such Cantiones, exhibits an unparalleled spirit of dignity, jubilation and rejoicing.
The fourth Responsory from the Office of Christmas Matins, known as Omagnum mysterium, has inspired numerous composers, not the least of whom is Spain's great Renaissance priest- composer Tomas Luis de Victoria. Awed by the image of the stable where animals contemplate the Infant, Victoria provides a marvelously mystic and meditative motet.
Morten Lauridsen, Composer-in-Residence to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, remarks of his recent setting of O magnum mysterium: "For centuries composers, including Palestrina and Victoria, have been inspired by the juxtaposition of the birth of the newborn King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin is celebrated in my setting through quiet song of profound inner joy."
Even though Ottorino Respighi (1879- 1936) was not regarded as the finest Italian composer of his generation, nevertheless he enjoyed the greatest international success of his contemporaries. Today we know him best for works such as The Pines and The Fountains of Rome. For the archaic Lauda per Ia Nativitate del Signore (1928- 30), Respighi draws upon the same radiant charm as the poems of the twelfth-century Fransican Jacapone da Todi. This expansive Christmas carol has various influences, among them the sixteenth-century madrigal, and the Monteverdian arioso.
For the melodic material of Christmas Comes Anew the late, renowned arranger Mark Riese uses the very early French noel melody known as Noėl Nouvelet. This noel melody has been applied to numerous, differing carol texts since no source of the melody provides a reliable one.
Norman Luboff has given us an exquisite and idiomatic arrangement of a famed and beloved Austrian folk-carol tune Still Still Still.
Mykola Leontovych (1877- 1921) did much to establish correct musical arrangements of his native Ukranian folksong polyphony. Hark! How the Bells, one his more famous works, greets the Newborn with joyous peals of bells. William Cutter develops his arrangement of this carol through a fantasia, or free variation form, permitting the exercise of his fancy in the manipulation of the melody.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale will be recording most of these arrangements on their upcoming compact disc release on the Delos label.