by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
The robust processional Personet hodie, arranged by famed North Carolinian Lara Hoggard, fittingly opens this Christmas Concert. The Latin carol originated approximately 1360 as a parody of a medieval song sung by children on December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) and later on December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents. The modern liturgical composer Hermann Schroeder (1930-91) wrote a vigorous and triumphant Magnificat utilizing Gregorian chant melodies, clear polyphonic lines, restrained lyricism and modern harmonies, a model of liturgical propriety. Contemporary UCLA professor-composer Alden Ashforth utilizes time-honored Latin texts, for which he has made his own alternate English translations, to create three stunning Christmas motets. Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born) is the antiphon for the Magnificat at Christmas vespers. O magnum mysterium (0 great mystery) has inspired many composers since the 16th century. Viderunt omnes (All peoples witness) derives its text from Psalm 98 and is the gradual for the Mass of Christmas Day.
California-based composer Conrad Susa is familiar to Master Chorale audiences since his Christmas Garland was performed in 1991. In this concert his Chtirsmas in the Southwest, Carols and Lullabies is presented. These Hispanic folk-carols have a naive quality as they trace the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem's inn and manger. The selections also depict the birth of the child, the loving adoration of the caring Mary, the advent of the shepherds with the gifts and the ringing out of joyous bells. Ding Dong Merrily on High did not originate as a French noel, as is often thought, but as a dance tune by Thoinot Arbeau. He published his dance collection in Orchesographie in 1596. The tune was turned into a carol by the English clergyman George Ratcliffe Woodward and the Anglo-Irish composer Charles Wood.
In his Carol Fantasy collection, the highly talented Mark Riese (1953-89) created an excellent choral arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. The tune found many counterparts in several continental countries. The text which appears in Bramley and Stainer's Christmas Carols, Old and New (1871) is derived from an early 19th century London street broadside. Contemporary composer Donald Waxman has incorporated five well-known carols in his An English Noel. The four presented here include Green Grow’th The Holly which utilizes a melody attributed to King Henry VIII but with a text elaborated in the 19th century by Lady Mary Trefusis. The Boar's Head carol, probably of Norse origin, dates from the 14th century. Boar's head feasts became particularly popular between Christmas and Candlemas day (February 2) and were centered around Queen's College, Oxford, where the song was adapted as a carol. The Coventry Carol (Lully, lulla Thou Little Tiny Child), emerges from the medieval mystery play performed each year at the festival of The Shearsman and Tailors. The Wassail Song is one of three famed English greeting songs sung by carolers carrying a festively decorated punch bowl. This wassail prevailed in northern England, especially in Yorkshire. Its first eight measures are similar to that of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
Roger Wagner's (1914-1992) Christmas Story binds together in his own arrangements several familiar carols separated by narrative excerpts from St. Luke's Gospel. We Three Kings, composed by John Henry Hopkins, Rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania achieved great popularity became it boasts a melody of great clarity and simplicity. Always very popular in the United States is What Child is This?, based on the 1642 melody Greensleeves. It received its text in 1865 from William Chatterton Dix.
After a visit to the Holy Land in 1865, American Episcopal Bishop Philip Brooks wrote the poem O Little Town of Bethlehem. After many tries at a melody, his organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) awoke on Christmas morn in 1868 with the fully-formed melody ringing in his ears. The American tune was first sung on December 27, 1868. Gesu Bambino was composed in 1917 for the St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir in New York and has become Pietro Yon's (1886-1943) most famous and enduringly loved work. It serves as an excellent example of a newly composed carol from ethnically mixed America. Angels We Have Heard on High derives its text from a poem written by James Chadwick, Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. He utilized an 18th century French Noel probably from Lorraine. The carol was first published in the 1860 collection Holy Family Hymns.
The Virgin’s Slumber Song in its origins may reach back to Elizabethan times. Joy to the World! is classified as a Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestant) repeating carol using the tune "Antioch" and setting Isaac Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 98. Its melody has wrongly been described as having been arranged by Handel.
The story of how Fathers Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr hurriedly composed Silent Night for choir and guitar because their Obendorf parish organ laid completely broken down from old age is a fable. The organ was still functioning for many subsequent years. What Gruber and Mohr did in composing Silent Night was a normal and quite usual procedure among Austrian church musicians, they composed an Austrian folk-like melody for Christmas Mass. Their distinction, however, is that they composed probably the most enduring, famous and beloved carol. Indeed, after 1818 Gruber made numerous adaptations of Silent Night including arrangements for small and large orchestra. This performance concludes with an arrangement by local composer Paul Sjolund.