By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Although Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873- 1943) did not specifically compose an Ave Maria, Latin words were applied to the fifteenth selection of his Opus 37, All-Night Vigil (Vespers Service) entitled "Vzbrannoy voyevode" (To the Mother of God"). Based on a Greek chant, the work was composed for a mixed chorus of men and boys in 1915 and was premiered by Moscow's Synodical Choir on March 10 of that year.
The famed words "Hodie Christus Natus est" comprise the Antiphon to the Magnificat for Second Vespers of Christmas. They received two settings by Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612). The version heard this evening was published in 1597 as part of Gabrieli's collection Sacrae Symphoniae. This collection of his later works marked a considerable advance on his uncle Andrea's use of polychoral techniques. Giovanni utilized the potential of the dual choruses so applicable to the double choir lofts of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice to develop the thematic materials of the motet rather than have each choir merely repeat the materials of the other, as his uncle had done.
With the conclusion of the antiphon "Hodie ... " it is appropriate to hear Andrea Gabrieli's (1520-76) setting of the Magnificat. Published in 1587, this canticle for three choirs totaling 12 parts (SSM, SATB, TTBB) marked a significant advance in Gabrieli's compositional techniques. He had earlier come under the strong influence of Renaissance giant Orlando di Lasso. In the decade of the 1570's his polychoral experiments permitted him to develop that distinctive ceremonial style characteristic of the Venetian School. His Concerti published in 1587 also provided for the use of cornets and trombones to reinforce the sopranos' high notes and the basses' low notes. Magnificat is a spectacular example of Andrea's developed approach.
Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654) belongs to the first generation of Baroque composers. He studied with the great Jan Sweelinck and was also strongly influenced by Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schutz. He was moreover well-known in his day as an expert in organ construction and as an inspector of new instruments. He spent most of his life in his birthplace, Halle, and remained loyal to his city during the great depression and distresses of the Thirty Years' War. In Dulci jubilo appeared in the third volume of his Geistlicher Concerten, published in 1635, which incorporated his skilled liturgical settings of the German chorale tunes for the church year. In Dulci jubilo has inspired innumerable composers to set its winsome melody.
Hark, jolly Shepherds, though appropriate as a Christmas piece, appeared in Thomas Morley's (1557-1602) Madrigals for Four Voices of 1594. Morley was the originator of the English madrigal and exercised considerable influence on its subsequent development. His artistic individuality coupled with his remarkable synthesis of the Italian style and English song techniques, accounts for his stature.
Utilizing a text of the poet W.H. Auden, Britten in this early tripartite motet, Hymn to St. Cecelia, arrived at his most typical vein of choral sonority. It was appropriately premiered in 1942 on the feast day of the saint, November 22. It demonstrates a remarkably unified emotional structure from its memorable invocation through its bell-like scherzo and the lovely sweetness of "O, dear white children" and "O Weep, Child."
Handbells have been used throughout history in most of the world in connection with religious ceremony and the liturgical dance. Evidence for handbells in use in Western Europe first appears in illuminated manuscripts of the 13th century. Although the 17th century English Puritans strove to suppress them, the later invention of devices which restricted the free swing of the clapper and provided for improvements in tonal specification resulted in teams of ringers in virtually every village of 19th-century England. These groups regaled their village streets and country lanes with Christmas Carols and traveled in teams ranging in size from four to fifteen to competitions throughout England.
Bands of professional ringers began touring the eastern United States in 1840 where they entertained on Chautauqua programs and vaudeville circuits. With the decline of the professionals, amateur groups arose, centered in New England beginning in 1895. There they created the impetus for the spread of Handbell teams across the United States. Today over 1000 teams made up of over 10,000 ringers form the membership of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, founded in 1954.
Masters in This Hall appeared about 1860 after William Morris set the words to the traditional French carol tune which had been obtained from the organist of Chartres Cathedral. Its twelve English verses with refrain make it a fitting Christmas processional.
My Dancing Day probably first appeared in William Sandy’s book, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, published in 1833. The words of the carol date back beyond the 17th century. The carol consists of three parts: the first celebrates Christmas joy, while the other two deal with Lenten, Passion, Easter and Ascensiontide themes.
The Christmas concert climaxes with Dr. Wagner's Christmas Story, a group of traditional carols linked together with excerpts from St. Luke's Infancy narrative. We Three Kings is an 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 famed Greensleeves melody, the refrain later written about 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. O Little Town of Bethlehem, a carol endowed with two distinct melodies, is in this melodic version, like so many other carols derived from an old secular tune, The Ploughboy's Dream. The words were furnished by Bishop Philip Brooks. Gesu Bambino is Pietro Yon's best known work. It is a rare example of a modern freshly composed carol which has become a popular carol. Angels We Have Heard on High comes from the south of France and is designated as a "gloria" carol indicating its relationship to the angels' song, "Glory to God in the Highest ...” The English rendition is by James Chadwick. The words of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) for Joy to the World have in time attracted many settings, none more popular than Handel's. Franz Gruber's exquisitely simple setting of Joseph Mohr's poem Silent Night for Christmas of 1818 has made it one of the most beloved carols of the Western world.