by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
This evening's concert has been billed as An English Christmas because either by origin or popular association the selections presented bear an inferred English character, even though some of them are the enduring gifts of other lands and people. The program has been designed as an opportunity for the audience to hear and enjoy a masterwork of classical art music on the Christmas theme balanced by a presentation of ever-popular carols.
Since its composition in 1953-54, when Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was in his eighty-second year, Hodie (This Day) has attained that lasting acceptance which marks a true masterpiece. With his artistic powers undiminished in old age like those of the octogenarian Verdi in Otello and Falstaff, Vaughan Williams created his last large choral work as a vivid summary of his whole compositional career. Indeed, this cantata in its choral writing and its inspired and colorful orchestral sonorities brought together brilliantly his lifelong experience. Hodie comes to us filled with youthful vitality, exuberance and joy, heightened further by mature reflective wisdom in the meditations he scatters throughout the Scriptural narrations of the events of Christ's birth.
Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams' biographer, notes that in Hodie the composer "returned to the pattern of his Dona Nobis Pacem (1936), in which words of Scripture are juxtaposed with secular poetry." One may observe, however that Hodie's pattern reflects Bach's and Handel's practice (in the Christmas Oratorio and Messiah respectively) of exhibiting that mixture of Scripture and poetry of pietistic reflection. Thus acknowledging its debt to the past, Hodie summarizes in its distinctly modern garb Vaughan Williams' mastery of the great English choral tradition, the preservation of which he devoted his long and fruitful life.
While in Hodie he calls us in almost childlike fashion to rejoice at the glad tidings of great joy, he likewise impels us to consider the universal significance which those glad tidings elicited from the poetry he sets.
Hodie, A Christmas Cantata was first sung under Vaughan Williams' direction on September 8, 1954 at the Three Choirs Festival in the gothic splendor of Worcester Cathedral. It derives its name from the first word of the antiphon to the Magnificat for Vespers of Christmas Day. This antiphon also inspired Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols where it serves likewise in the Prologue. Since Vaughan Williams indicated that the opening words of the work be sung in the Latin of the antiphon, he preferred the title Hodie to its English translation This Day (Christ has been born).
He dedicated his cantata to his fellow English composer, Herbert Howells, his junior by twenty years. Though neither Howells nor Vaughan Williams could later put their finger on it, Vaughan Williams asserts in the dedication that he had "inadvertently cribbed" a melodic phrase from Howell's Hymnus Paradisi, a passage he considered germane to his context.
Hodie is scored for a large mixed chorus and full orchestra, with soprano, tenor and baritone soloists; and with treble-voiced boys singing the recitatives. It comprises sixteen segments of narrative drawn to suit its purposes from the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John and from the Book of Common Prayer. These passages are interposed with the poems of eight English poets from Tudor to modern times.
The Prologue sets the musical mood of the whole composition and is thus characterized by Kennedy: "Take ... the intoxicating rhythmical exultancy of the opening chorus. This is remarkable music difficult to perform, but when well sung and played, irresistible in its exhilaration."
The narrative commences depicting Joseph's dilemma when the Virgin Mary was found to be with child. The angel clarifies the situation and indicates the greatness of Him conceived. There follows a solo for soprano accompanied by women's chorus on Milton's Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, the theme of which is the universal peace throughout land and sea wrought by nature at the arrival of the Heaven-born Child.
The Lucan account of the journey to Bethlehem and the accomplishment of Mary's days precedes a flowing chorale on Miles Coverdale's rendering of a poem by Luther, The Blessed Son of God. Proceeding apace, the trebles, tenor and soprano soloists and the chorus dramatically describe the angels' appearance to the shepherds and their visit to the manger. Vaughan Williams selects a poem of Thomas Hardy, The Oxen, to illustrate through a baritone solo the onlookers' naive wonder at the sight of oxen in adoration at the crib. The brief account of the shepherds' return to their flocks initiates the baritone's rendition of George Herbert's meditatively poetic inquiry The Shepherds Sing: and Shall I Silent Be?
Mary's soulful pondering of these events finds expression in an exquisitely lovely lullaby for soprano solo and women's chorus on W. Ballet's Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sang. The tenor follows immediately with a majestic hymn-aria on William Drummond's poem, Bright Portals of the Sky.
Again a dramatic portrait of the arrival of and inquiry by the Wise Men leads up to a solemn orchestral march replete with brassy fanfare introducing Ursula Vaughan Williams' poem on the March of the Three Kings, contrasted shortly by the musically tranquil description of the offering by each king of his portent-filled gift. The chorus now meditates through the words of an anonymous poet supplemented with a verse by Ursula Vaughan Williams in an almost Bach-like chorale No Sad Thoughts His Soul Affright.
The whole work concludes with a quasi-liturgical epilogue as the baritone soloist in an arioso-type recitative offers in adaptation a portion of the prologue to John's gospel. All forces then join to summarize in a majestic and powerful allegro the exultant words of John Milton's hymn (noted earlier), Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres, Vaughan Williams' vision of universal truth and justice.
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Leroy Anderson achieved considerable fame as an arranger of music for the Boston Pops Orchestra and through his inventive instrumental novelties. His talent is well illustrated in Christmas Festival, a medley of Christmas carols for orchestra.
One of the oldest known forms of the English carol is the Wassail, an Anglo-Saxon feasting carol, a toast to the health and heartiness of the participants. Vaughan Williams provides a truly virtuoso arrangement of a traditional Wassail.
The Coventry Carol is first found in a manuscript of 1591, a part of the medieval Pageant of the Shearsmen and Taylors coming from the 15th century. It poignantly depicts Herod's slaying of the Innocents.
Lo, How a Rose appeared in the Speier Gesangbuch of 1599 and received an early harmonization by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) making it well-known.
Sing We Now of Christmas has the jaunty rhythmic vitality so often associated with French carols.
Roger Wagner's arrangements of carols in the Christmas Story are connected with appropriate excerpts from the gospel of Luke. 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 melody entitled The Ploughboy's Dream, its words being by Bishop Phillip 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 is a French noel coming from Languedoc or South France. The words are by James Chadwick. Joy to the World boasts the immortal music of Handel who wrote it as the setting for a poem by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Franz Gruber's setting of Father Joseph Mohr's poem Silent Night has made it the most famous Christmas carol of the western world, while Handel's Hallelujah Chorus ending Part Two of Messiah and celebrating the Risen Christ, deserves its claim to be the most famous of all great celebration anthems.