by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Most commentators discussing Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) entrancing Ceremony of Carols elaborate on their essentially medieval characteristics. In contrast to more familiar modern carols which are clothed in romantic harmonic garb, Britten strove to capture in his selections a more English religious feeling. To this end, he stressed various medieval compositional devices including subtle harmonies and scored for semi-liturgical boys’ voices. Of the nine selected poems, five are by anonymous poets, one each by the 16th century Scottish balladeers, James, John and Robert Wedderburn and one by the obscure William Cornish. Two of the poems are by the brilliant recusant Jesuit, Robert Southwell. All of the poetry is framed by the antiphon to the Magnificat for the second vespers of Christmas Hodie Christus natus est. Britten composed his Ceremony as he crossed the Atlantic during the dark days of 1942 while returning to England from the United States. The work is scored for treble voices and harp. The harp also provides a meditative interlude.
Morten Lauridsen writes “When Los Angeles Master Chorale Board Chair Marshall Rutter asked me to compose a new work for the Christmas concert in honor of his wife, Terry Knowles, my thoughts went immediately to that most beautiful text, O magnum mysterium. For centuries, composers including Palestrina and Victoria have been inspired by the juxtaposition of the birth of the new-born 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 a quiet song of profound inner joy.”
In his ancestry, Daniel Pinkham (b. 1923) hails from a Yankee family of religious philosophers, educators and commercial industrialists. His father was president of the famed patent medicine firm. Such worthies as Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Archibald Davison and Nadia Boulanger educated Pinkham and assisted him in becoming a celebrated composer. His achievements have won him membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sturdy architectural structure, energetic polyphony and chromatic harmony characterize much of his style. He has long manifested interest in Baroque music, resulting in his neo-baroque and ever-popular Christmas Cantata (1965). His choice of Latin for the text imparts a universality and objectivity to the work. Its three movements are sung without pause and is scored for mixed chorus with organ and brass accompaniment.
The Argentinian composer Ariel Ramírez (b. 1921) specializes in preserving and using his native land’s folk music. As in his famed Misa Criolla (1963), he composed a folk drama in 1965 entitled Navidad Nuestra (Our Christmas) using the rhythms and traditions of Hispanic America. This criollo retable (native tableau) – on a poem by Felix Luna – has the whole Christmas pageant expressed in a popular manner and exhibits the spirit of ordinary people. These tableaus exhibit a distinctive regional flavor with a chamane for the Annunciation to Mary, a huella pampena for the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, a vidala catamarqueno for the birth of Christ. The Adoration of the Shepherds utilizes a chaya riojana rhythm, while the scene of the Three Kings is in takirari tempo. The Flight to Egypt exhibits a vidala tucmana rhythmic structure. All but one of these characteristically Latin rhythms are in triple time. Ramírez’ popular melodic gifts combined with Luna’s tender and simple verses give Navidad Nuestra a universal appeal. The work is scored for mixed chorus, soloists, bongos, guitar and harpsichord.
A Christmas Galrand, by the effective and innovative composer Conrad Susa, received its premiere in Columbus, Ohio in December of 1988. It was much acclaimed when performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in December of 1991. Susa has noted that the glittering introduction (cries of Noel) serves as a garland to God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen in which the angels announce the message of comfort and joy. The accompaniment dances into The Holly and the Ivy as the chorus sings I Saw Three Ships asking “what was in these ships all three?” According to old legend the answer given is We Three Kings of Orient Are. Arriving at the manger, the kings find the Christ child being soothed by The Coventry Carol and O Come, All Ye Faithful. Celebration breaks out with Joy to the World humorously “deconstructed” to manifest the carol’s relationship to several of Handel’s works. Noels then return in all embracing triumph to conclude this attractive garland.