By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
This Christmas Program opens appropriately with a procession of the Chorale singing the entrance antiphon (Introit) for the old Latin Mass of Christmas Day. Puer natus est nobis (A child is born to us and a son is given to us) derives its text from both lsaiah 9/6 and Psalm 97 of the Vulgate Bible. Its noble melody reaches back in manuscripts to the tenth and eleventh centuries.
While this chant exhibits an ideal of subdued but profoundly spiritual joy, the opening movement "Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest)" from Antonio Vivaldi's masterly Gloria of 1708 furnishes with its characteristically vigorous choral/orchestral fanfares an appropriate opening flourish from the stage.
Roger Wagner and the Los Angeles Master Chorale now take a last opportunity to celebrate J.S. Bach's third birthday centennial with a performance of his Magnificat. As Albert Riemenschneider has observed: “The Magnificat is without doubt one of the greatest choral works ever written. It is perhaps the one work in its dimensions which ranks in everyway with the very greatest of Bach and is the one composition of his which might well carry the caption ‘Multum in parvo’ (Greatness within limited dimensions.)
Bach's Magnificat appeared first at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, at Christmas Vespers in 1723, his first Christmas in the city. Its original key was E-flat. Lutheran ritual of those times still accommodated occasions for Latin texts especially at Christmas and Easter. In accordance also with a well-established custom, Bach, in order to lend even more of a Christmas spirit to the various Latin movements of this Canticle of the Blessed Virgin, interspersed between them in a more folk-like style four additional movements: Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubiliert, Glora in excelsis, and Virgo Jesse floruit. Sung likewise at this same service was his Cantata 63, Christen aetzet diesen Tag and a Sanctus in D. The great cantata had been produced for a Christmas celebration prior to 1716; the Sanctus was like Magnificat newly composed for that Christmas. One wonders, as Riemenschneider remarks, how many of the peaceful citizens at that Vespers service realized that this was indeed a history-making day in the realm of music.
For his E-flat version, Bach scored for forces involving two soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, a five-voiced choir, three trumpets, two recorders, two oboes, strings and continuo. The version we commonly hear today Bach revised between 1728 and 1731. He then changed the key to D and tightened up the whole composition, omitting the weaker Christmas insets. While retaining the same solo and choral forces, Magnificat's orchestra retained the three trumpets, the oboes, strings and continuo, omitted the two recorders replacing them with transverse flutes and added two oboe d'amore and timpani.
As with all cantata-style compositions of Bach, the listener will profit from detailed attention in each of the twelve movements to the character of the vocal and choral line with its distinct and adroit choice of instrumentation. Except for the three festal choral movements utilizing full orchestra (Magnificat, Fecit potentiam, and Gloria Patri), in every one of the other movements Bach accommodates the singer with varied orchestral forces designed with superb skill to highlight the character of the particular text. Moreover his selection of voice combinations whether solo, duet or trio similarly enhances his textual vision.
As Homer Ulrich has observed, Magnificat stands as one of Bach's most joyful, majestic, and expressive works:'
Hector's Berlioz's Christmas oratorio L’Enfance du Christ, arose out of mild hoax he perpetrated on Parisian music critics. In 1850 he jotted down the "Flight into Egypt" and the "Shepherds' Farewell" at a party hosted by Louis Due attributing them to a fictitious French chapel master Pierre Ducré. Out of these two movements grew the lengthy Childhood of Christ. This work brought considerable acclaim most everywhere it was performed by him except in Paris. Three major parts constitute the work, of which the Second Part, composed first in order of time, was entitled the Flight into Egypt. After its orchestral introduction also called by that title, the Farewell of the Shepherds ensues. It tells of the tender leavetaking of the shepherds from the Holy Family as it embarks on its journey to Egypt.
The tune of Tyrley, Tyrlow reaches back for its origins to about 1450. The text marks the thirty-sixth poem found in Richard Hill's Commonplace Book produced about 1500. In 1847, Wright incorporated it into his published Songs and Carols.
Balulalow has an interesting background. In 1567 the brothers Wedderburn published Ane Compendious Buik of Godly and Spiritual Songs for the edification of the English Protestant brethren. Balulalow, found therein, clothed with English text Martin Luther's Christmas eve song for his son Hans; “Vom Himmel hoch," first published in Geistliche Lieder, 1535.
Because there are numerous and varied songs entitled Wassail, this evening's Wassail should more properly be designated the Gloucestershire Wassail. Vaughan Williams included it in his 1919 collection of Eight Traditional English Carols for mixed chorus, violin and piano. The Old English word "Wes hal" meant "Be thou whole or hale" and served as a salutation on a festive occasion. Research indicates many variants of this famed tune. In 1864, a troop of reveling wassailers were seen near Overton, Gl. carrying about the great punch bowl decorated with garlands and ribbons.
Having served as music director for such celebrity shows as those of Red Skelton, Fred Astaire, and Bob Hope, London-born David Rose needs no introduction. Among his more familiar scores are those for Winged Victory, the TV show Little House on the Prairie, and his song One Love. Virtuosity, brilliance, and sparkle characterized his Holiday for Trombones and this evening's more widely known and loved Holiday for Strings.
Words and melody for My Dancing Day appeared in 1833 in Sandy's Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. The carol seems to have been based on a secular song with a text going back to the 17th century. Religious joy and emotion have long been expressed in dance form. This general carol tune possesses three different texts applicable to all parts of the liturgical year.
Benjamin Britten composed his exquisitely lovely Hymn to the Virgin in 1930. It was first sung at Lowestoft St. John on January 5, 1931. Later in 1934 he revised it to its present form.
Deck the Hall originated in the Welsh winter carol Nos Galan (Winter). The tune came to be applied to a New Year's Eve secular carol text. The Oxford Book of Carols also appends to it the traditional Christmas text with some variants to accommodate singing it at New Years, but does not indicate its origins.
Some of our most familiar and popular Christmas music come from the ever fruitful pen of Johnny Marks. Innumerable groups of carolers have used his Christmas Community Lyric Book. Everyone enjoys his The Night Before Christmas, Around the Christmas Tree, and Everyone's a Child at Christmas. His "Rudolph" songs include Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and Rudolph and Frosty. Of course the first and most popular of them is Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Here in the concert it shines at the hands of arranger J.D. Ployhan with scintillating, jaunty, and brilliant orchestral colors.
Handbell ringing achieved great popularity during the 19th century in England and later in America. Devices had been invented restricting the free swing of the clapper coupled with significant improvements in tonal accuracy. Ringers regaled city and village streets and lanes with Christmas carols. Team competitions and national handbell organizations have promoted playing to a high pitch of virtuosity, well illustrated by this evening's selections. These include the Passacaglia or Chaconne from Handel's 1720 orchestral Suite in G (#251-255). It appears to have been composed originally as an independent work. A Passacaglia was a slow dance erected on a recurring ground bass or short bass phrase with melodic variations in the upper voices. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy enchants us still even when separated from Tchaikovsky's ballet of 1892, The Nutcracker. Son of Mary utilizes the well-known carol tune What Child is This. Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride enjoys widespread popularity along with his well-known medley of carols in his Christmas Festival.
Roger Wagner's arrangement of carols in the Christmas Story are connected together with appropriate excerpts from the gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. We Three Kings is a long-accepted and successful American carol composed in 1857 by Dr. J.H. Hopkins, Rector of Christ Church, Williamsport, Pennsylvania. What Child is This was set prior to 1642 to the Greensleeves melody, the refrain being authored by William Chatterton Dix about 1865. O Little Town of Bethlehem utilizes an old secular melody entitled The Ploughboy's Dream, its poem being composed by Bishop Philip Brooks. Gesu Bambino was composed by Pietro Yon (1886- 1943), longtime organist at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Angels We Have Heard on High originated in Languedoc or South France with its English words by James Chadwick. Joy to the World boasts a derivation rather complicated. The famed melody was produced by Lowell Mason (1792-1872) who derived it from a melody by George Frideric Handel. The poem is by the 18th Century English hymnist Isaac Watt. Franz Gruber's setting of Father Joseph Mohr's poem Stille Nacht intially was accompanied by a guitar, the village church's organ having broken down. Silent Night has become the most famous and loved Christmas carol of the western world.