By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Pope St. Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century admonished St. Augustine of Canterbury and his band of Benedictine evangelists about to enter Anglo-Saxon England that they should retain any pagan practice or custom prevalent among the people which they could reasonably Christianize. Christmas in France and England thus came to replace the old pagan winter festival. Indeed in England it early became and remained the greatest of popular feasts.
Its celebration, however, did not soon lose its erstwhile pagan associations as a time of revelry during which the prevalent dance songs emerged gradually as the genre we call the carol. These songs manifested considerable ribaldry much to the concern of the clergy.
Thomas Gascoigne in the fifteenth century signaled the Church's concern. "On the birthday of the Lord Jesus, all of you for whose salvation Christ came should on this sacred festival beware of and flee from everything vicious and immoral, especially from those ribald and licentious carols which stirring up and enticing you to evil conduct soil and wound the imagination. These carols imprint on the mind such images as are exceedingly difficult to expel."
The Church's efforts to Christianize the peoples of Western Europe and England benefited greatly from Franciscan spirituality of the thirteenth century which strongly emphasized Christ's human condition. St. Francis of Assisi promoted such visual aids as the Christmas crib testifying to the poverty and humility of the Savior. He likewise utilized the Italian lauda or carol to foster in the popular mind an appreciation for all the principal episodes of Christ's life.
That the carol subsequently emerged almost synonymous with the celebration of Christmas testifies to the impact of the Franciscan tradition and the astuteness of the Church in utilizing it to lessen or eradicate earlier unedifying winter entertainments. The large number of carols, for example, surviving from Medieval England marks only a portion of the voluminous outflow of these popular songs, quite removed in their origin then as now from the spontaneous nature of the true folksong.
The carol or noel has continuously retained its popular character and steady output from Gascoigne's day to our own. It forms a solid body of Christmas music alongside the more sophisticated art-songs we designate as motet and anthem.
This evening's program highlights several aspects of carol and motet. Familiar carols from varying sources, English, French, and American have been tastefully arranged by Roger Wagner and Salli Terri. Of these and the motets we single out the following for further comment.
Jubilate Deo (Psalm 99 Vulgate Bible) has been described as perhaps the greatest motet ever composed and a crowning achievement of the Venetian school of music. Giovanni Gabrieli published it in 1597 as one of a collection of motets for eight voices and instruments under the title Sacrae Symphoniae. His vocal and instrumental music capitalized on the possibilities afforded by St. Mark's Cathedral for sonorous antiphonal singing. Jubilate Deo illustrates these effects through the contrasts achieved by two choirs within the chorus, one a high-voiced combination of sopranos, altos, and tenors opposed to a low-voiced grouping of altos, tenors, and baritone-basses. The rejoicing in God culminates as Gabrieli unites all his voices and instruments in a dazzlingly sonorous and powerful climax.
Acknowledging his debt to Gabrieli, the New England born and educated Daniel Pinkham inscribed his Christmas Cantata of 1958 as a Sinfonia sacra. The outer movements with their brilliant brass scoring display vigorous rhythmic drive and energetic polyphony. The inner second movement of this ingratiatingly attractive cantata dwells with exquisitely meditative contemplation on the great mystery of the Incarnate surrounded in his manger by ox and ass, another recurring theme of the carol.
The ever popular Good King Wenceslas, a carol for St. Stephen's Day, December 26, derives its melody from a spring carol entitled Tempus adest floridum (The Flowering Time has Come) found in Piae cantiones. ). N. Neale's rather confused words have criticized by competent scholars as "doggerel" and "poor and commonplace to the last degree."
Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All our God) is one of seventy one chorale tunes composed by Johannes Crueger (1578-1662). It appeared among others in the Praxis pietatis melica of 1641, the most influential collection of the chorale for the Lutheran Church in the seventeenth century.
Johannes Pachelbel's setting is one of eleven extant motets he produced for double balanced mixed chorus with occasional use of solo voices. Unlike most of the others in this collection, Nun danket ..., composed in 1705, ends with the combined chorus's sopranos singing the chorale melody in long note values while the other three parts provide support in quaver movements. These motets rank among Pachelbel's most mature creations.
The secular Gloucestershire Wassail represents those survivors of native toasting songs of the Anglo-Saxons which frequently came to be associated with Christmas festivity. In 1919 Ralph Vaughan Williams used this folk melody as a vehicle for the creation of a masterly virtuoso choral arrangement which he published in his Eight Traditional English Carols.
Alexy Fyodorovich L'vov (1798-1870) found his compositions for the Russian liturgy eclipsed in the world's estimate of his work by reason of the fact that in 1833 at the behest of the Czar he composed the Russian National Anthem, God Save the Czar. Hospodi Pomilui probably appeared as one of thirty short choral pieces published in St. Petersburg about 1885. Its words, 'Lord have mercy,' are the intensely repeated response to the priest's litany petitions.
In Good Christian Men, Rejoice we have a broad English translation of the old German macaronic carol In dulci jubilo originating in the fourteenth century: The original words as a contemporary writer asserted were dictated by angels to the great Dominican mystic Henry Suso. This delightful and sprightly carol has over the intervening centuries invited arrangements and variations from numerous distinguished composers.
The program climaxes with Dr. Wagner's arrangement of carols in the Christmas Story appropriately connected together with excerpts from Luke's gospel narrative. 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 famed Greensleeves melody, the refrain being authored about 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. O Little Town of Bethlehem like so many carols utilizes an old secular melody entitled The Ploughboy's Dream, its words being by Bishop Philip Brooks. Jesu Bambino has served to make Pietro Yon's name more remembered than all of his other works. It is an example of a modern newly composed carol which has won its way into the hearts of many, typical of the process by which the carol has evolved. Yon (1886-1943) produced numerous liturgical compositions during his tenure as organist for New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Angels We Have Heard on High, a French noel, comes from the Languedoc area of South France. It is designated as a "gloria" indicating its relationship to the angels' song, Gloria in excelsis Deo. The English rendition is by James Chadwick. Joy to the World boasts the immortal music of Handel. The words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) have attracted numerous settings. Handel's holds the field. Technically the work is a hymm or general praise rather than specifically a carol. Franz Gruber's exquisitely simple setting of Fr. Joseph Mohr's poem Silent Night for the Christmas of 1818 has made it the most loved Christmas carol of the western world ..