NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
O magnum mysterium (1587)
Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554-1612)
Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the supreme glories of Italian music, was born and died at Venice. After four years with Lassus at Munich (1575-79) he was appointed second organist of St. Mark's Cathedral January 1, 1585. That same day his uncle Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1520-86) became first organist. Two years later Giovanni published a collection of his own works mixed with his uncle's under the general title of Concerti di Andrea et Gio: Gabrieli (Venice, 1587). O magnum mysterium is Giovanni's third motet in this 1587 collection. All five motets by Giovanni in the collection are opulent works for antiphonal choirs of voices optionally doubled by instruments.
The answering back and forth of choirs that was to remain a hallmark of the younger Gabrieli's style throughout his career is all the more effective in O magnum mysterium because the two choirs are so clearly differentiated- one of higher voices, the other of lower. To make the contrasts more telling, Gabrieli writes short phrases for each choir. The higher starts, five bars later to be answered by the lower. They then unite for a brief phrase. This same procedure is repeated: high choir, low choir, both choirs.
At the close of this beautiful responsory for Christmas matins, Gabrieli shifts from common meter to triple for an exultant closing section in which the choirs answer each other with Alleluias. The joyful mood is here enhanced with syncopations.
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930)
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943)
Benjamin Britten (b. 1913)
Britten, the most successful living English composer, wrote A Hymn to the Virgin when not yet 17. He was then in his last year at Gresham's School, Holt, in Norfolk, forty miles from Lowestoft where he was born. At the time of writing this beautiful work for full chorus, singing in English, answered by a small ensemble singing interjected Latin phrases in honor of the Virgin, he was ill in the school infirmary. No music paper was handy. Therefore he had to draw his own staves on a sheet from a student notebook.
Britten's feeling for choral music came early and naturally. All his biographers dwell on his birthdate's having been St. Cecilia's Day- a presage of his career to come. His mother, who was an ardent singer and a good pianist, served many years as secretary of the local Lowestoft Choral Society. His father, a dentist, while not a musician, invited guest professional singers from London who came for performances with the Choral Society to stay at their house.
After Britten's simple and exquisite a cappella Hymn to the Virgin came A Boy was Born (1932-33), Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942), A Ceremony of Carols (1942), and Rejoice in the Lamb (1943). After World War II, his continuing choral output included St. Nicolas (1948), Spring Symphony (1949), Cantata Academica (1959), Missa Brevis (1959), War Requiem (1961), Cantata Misericordium (1963), Voices For Today (1965), and Children's Crusade (1970).
The Reverend Walter Hussey commissioned the 16-minute cantata Rejoice in the Lamb for the 50th anniversary of his Church of St. Matthew, Northampton (September 21, 1943). Hussey's commissions for his church extended also to sculpture and painting- a Madonna and Child statue by Henry Moore and a mural of the Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland. The fame of these representatives of the other arts shows what kind of select company Britten was already keeping by 1943. The success of Rejoice in the Lamb brought him another commission from the same church to compose for organ in 1947 his Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria (Tomas Luis de Victoria, 1549-1611, Spanish composer).
The text of Rejoice in the Lamb is a chain of passages drawn from the poem Jubilate Agno ("Rejoice in the Lamb") by the powerful but erratic 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, who wrote it while confined in a mental institution.
Seven Joys of Christmas, Op. 25
Kirke Mechem (b. 1925)
Kirke Mechem, one of the outstanding present-day choral composers in America, was born at Wichita, Kansas, August 16, 1925. He took the B.A. at Stanford where he studied with Harold C. Schmidt and Leonard Ratner. At Harvard where Randall Thompson and Walter Piston were his teachers he won the Boott Prize and obtained an M.A. In 1959 upon returning from three years' study in Vienna he won the Sigma Alpha Iota-C. F. Peters American Music Award. In 1965 he won the Monaco International Chamber Music Prize.
In Seven Joys of Christmas, Mechem cunningly strings together as on a necklace his arrangements of the four carols found in The Oxford Book of Carols at nos. 68- The Joy of love; 77- The Joy of Mary; 82-The Joy of Children; and 49 [tune]The Joy of Song. He intersperses these with three arrangements from other sources. Both tune and text for The Joy of Love were first published in Ella M. leather's "Carols from Herefordshire," Journal of the Folk-Song Society, IV/1 (June 1910), page 17. Ralph Vaughan Williams transcribed the tune from her recording of a folk singer named W. Jenkins who lived at Ledgemoor, King's Pyon. Mechem's harmonization of the tune differs from the harmonization published by Vaughan Williams in 1919. In the first stanza he divides the tune antiphonally between a soprano soloist and the other singers and uses some 6-4 chords and suspensions, whereas Vaughan Williams preferred 5-3 or 6-3 chords without suspensions. Mechem begins his third stanza ("And we were heirs to endless woes") with the heavy tread of an ostinato bass. Throughout stanzas 4 and 5 he adds many individual touches that prove him no less a master of choral writing than Vaughan Williams himself.
The German tune for The Joy of Mary, according to the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols, "occurs in a manuscript at Leipzig University dated about 1500, as part of a mystery play acted in Church around the crib. The German text begins Joseph Iieber, Joseph mein, Hilt mir wiegen mein Kindelein, here translated 'Joseph dearest, Joseph mine, Help me cradle the Child divine.' A version with Latin text was published in Johann Walther's Gesangbuch, 1544. Our version of the tune is taken from the Mainzer Cantua/, 1605."
The French tune for The Joy of Children, which according to The Oxford Book of Carols was composed by Bernard de la Monnoye (1641-1728), was first published in F. Fertiault's Noels Bourgignons, 1842. The tune for the last joy, The Joy of Song, was first published in Edmondstoune Duncan's Story of the Carol (London, 1911), there called the Furry Day Carol. "Furry" comes from the Latin word feria meaning holiday. To insure an effective conclusion for The Joy of Song, Mechem introduces fragments of two other much better known carols. The second of these is Lowell Mason's tune Antioch, 1836, composed for Isaac Watts's text of 1719, Joy to the World. Since "joy" is the theme of all seven sections in Mechem's cantata, he could have found no better musical quotation with which to climax the work.
Mechem credits the tune used in The Joy of Bells to Thoinot Arbeau's Orchesographie, 1589, and the tunes used in The Joy of the New Year and The Joy of Dance to Japanese and Spanish "traditional" sources. To heighten the Spanish dance flavor, he prescribes a percussion accompaniment including castanets and tambourine and asks the harpist to imitate the sound of a guitar in The Joy of Dance.
Christmas Carols from Foreign Lands
Some of the most beloved Christmas carols are of wholly American origin- O little town of Bethlehem, It came upon a midnight clear, We three kings of Orient, for example. But the tunes for Hark the herald angels, Silent night, and several other favorites are by foreigners. The group of four carol arrangements grouped together after Intermission owe their inspiration to a German model- The Christmas Nightingale; a latin-American - Latin-American Christmas Lullaby; a Spanish- The Gift Carol; and a French-A Merry Christmas Song.
The text of the first as arranged by Joyce Barthelson for the Trinity Lutheran Church Choir of White Plains, New York [1965) starts as follows: "O nightingale awake! And every songster sing with thee, From every green and swinging tree, Your joyful music make. A little Child, Born in Bethlehem today, O sing to Him your sweetest lay." The Latin-American Christmas Lullaby arranged by Ralph Hunter (1961) takes its flavor from the accompanying Caribbean percussion instruments, and is marked to be sung in "easy calypso style unhurried!" At the start, men's voices set up a rhythmic counterpoint to the women's, who sing: "Sleep little one, I have something to do, I must wash your didies, Sit me down to sew, Sleep my little one, Sleep my little pumpkin head."
Lloyd Pfautsch (born 1921) contributed the tunes of two hymns in the current Methodist Hymnal. One of the most active arrangers before the public today, he seized Spanish style in his a cappella Gift Carol (1967) with lilting tunes in 6/8. The phrases are all four bars each, with much rhythmic and melodic repetition. The text starts: "What shall I bring to the Babe in the manger? What shall I give to the beautiful Boy? I will bring grapes to Him, hanging in clusters, Baskets of figs for the Child to enjoy."
Maurice Goldman, arranger of A Merry Christmas Song, was born in Philadelphia, joined ASCAP in 1956, and headed the Opera Department of the Cleveland Institute of Music before settling in Los Angeles.
Nuestra Navidad (Our Nativity)
Ariel Ramirez (b. 1921)
The Second Vatican Council endorsed the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and also ushered in a new era in church music. Popular rhythms and folk instruments began replacing Gregorian Chant and the organ throughout Latin America. In nearly every country composers close to the folk heritage found ready audiences for musical settings of the Mass incorporating sprightly tunes and dancelike rhythms. But in none with such overwhelming success as Argentina, where in 1963 Ariel Ramirez composed the now world-famous Misa criolla, subtitled "Folk Mass based on the rhythms and traditions of Hispanic America." Five years later after 100,000 copies of the Philips recording had been sold, he won the one- million-Argentine peso National Arts Fund Prize for having made in 1968 the "most outstanding contribution in the world of the arts" and was granted a special audience with Pope Paul VI.
Ramirez was born at Santa Fe, Argentina in 1921. His earliest now available piano pieces date from 1944-45. Published by Ricordi at Buenos Aires in 1954-58, these are based on Argentine regional dance tunes such as the gato, malambo, and zamba. He himself recorded El pampeano, aire de gato for Victor (60-1290). In 1950 he went to Vienna for advanced study at the Hochschule für Musik. Two years later the lnstituto de Cultura Hispanica at Madrid gave him a travel grant to study the sources of Argentine musical folklore in Spain. In that same year, 1952, he conducted his first concert of Argentine music over the Vatican Radio. Upon returning to Buenos Aires he founded in 1955 the Argentine Folklore Company. His company toured Europe during the next few years.
Nuestra Navidad, the Christmas cantata by Félix Luna, consists of six sections. Each section takes its inspiration from a dance type popular in Argentina. "The Annunciation" is related to the chamame, a fast 6/8 dance of the Argentine prairies each phrase of which begins with the pickup beat (or two pickup beats). ''The Pilgrimage" is based on the huella pampeana, a flowing 6/8 dance that alternates between slower and faster sections. "The Nativity" is associated with the vidala as sung and danced in Catamarca. The rhythm here is a stately 3/4 with dotted first beats in the measure. This and the sixth number (also in 3/4) are the only parts of the Cantata sung unaccompanied except for drums.
The fourth number, "The Shepherds" begins with a descending Phrygian scale sung by the entire choir in unison. The form is that of four coplas, each preceded by the descending Phrygian scale. The Andalusian flavor is heightened by the persistent rhythmic figure in fast 6/8 repeated 72 times by the drums (the high drum played with sticks and the low drum with hands). After "The Shepherds" in 6/8· comes "The Three Kings" in 2/4. Here the tempo is that of the north Argentine dance called takirari (taki = taqui is the Quechua word for "festival"). Both in "The Shepherds" and ''The Three Kings" the melody line is constantly duplicated in thirds- a practice that is almost universal in popular Latin American music whatever the country. "The Flight" of The Holy Family ends the cantata. Here the 3/4 rhythm takes its stride from the vidala as sung in Tucuman (northern Argentina). Despite the title, "The Flight" is marked "slow." Mary rides on a plodding burro who cannot move fast. Two strains alternate. First the chorus urging the burro to "move on." Then a story line telling how Herod waits with his sword sharpened to kill the Infant who may one day usurp his throne.
The Scripture read in the Christmas Narration is from the beloved second chapter of Luke’s Gospel (King James Version) interspersed with favorite seasonal music: We three kings, verses 1-5; What Child is This, verses 6-9; O little town of Bethlehem, verses 10-12; Gesu Bambino [The Infant Jesus], verses 13-14; Angels we have heard on high, verses 15-16; The Virgin Slumber Song, Joy to the World, verses 17-19; Silent Night.
Both the words and tune of We three kings of Orient were composed by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891) in 1857. Hopkins was born at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania of pioneer parents from Dublin and Hamburg. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1839, taught at Savannah, Georgia, 1842-1844, and returned to Vermont for his M.A. in 1845. From 1855 to 1857 he was the first instructor in church music at General Theological Seminary, New York. He was rector of Christ Church, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, from 1876 to 1887. His popular We three kings was first published in Carols, Hymns and Songs, 1863.
The tune of What Child is This is Greensleeves, a traditional English melody first mentioned in 1580 as "A new Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves." That same year it was already fitted to sacred words in a ballad called "Green Sieves [si c] moralised in the Scripture, declaring the manifold benefits and blessings of God." Shakespeare mentioned the tune twice in Merry Wives of Windsor. As a carol it first appeared in New Christmas Carols, 1642 to a text beginning, "The old year now is fled." The text for What Child is This was written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), born at Bristol, educated there, and in adult life manager of a marine insurance firm.
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote the words for O little town of Bethlehem for his Sunday School in 1868 two years after visiting Bethlehem. Lewis Redner (1831- 1908), organist at Holy Trinity Church, Philadelphia, of which Phillips was then rector, wrote the music.
Pietro Yon (1886-1943) published Gesu Bambino with the English text by Frederick H. Martens in 1917. Born near Turin, Italy, he studied at Turin Conservatory 1901-1904, and from 1906 was an assistant organist to Renzi at St. Peter's, Rome. In 1907 he emigrated to New York City where from 1907 he was organist at St. Francis Xavier and from 1926 to 1943 at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In 1919-1921 he was again in Italy as second organist of the Cappella Giulia, but on returning to the United States became a citizen. He composed some 20 Masses, of which six were published, a Concerto Gregoriano for organ and orchestra, three organ sonatas, and much else. His most ambitious work was an oratorio The Triumph of St. Patrick (1934) dedicated to Patrick Cardinal Hayes and premiered with great solemnity at Carnegie Hall.
Angels we have heard on high is an anonymous 18th-century French carol. First published in Nouveau recueil de cantiques, 1855, with eight strophes, it began thus in the original French: Les anges dans nos campagnes Ont entonne l'hymne des deux, Et l'echo de nos montagnes Redit ce chant melodieux: Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The words for Joy to the World were published in 1719 as the second part of Isaac Watts's imitation of Psalm 98. Watts (1674-1748) entitled his free paraphrase "The Messiah's Coming and Kingdom." Lowell Mason (1792-1872) published the tune for Joy to the World in 1836 with the title Antioch. Since Watts claimed to be “imitating" an Old Testament Psalm, Mason followed Watts's cue and claimed to have based Antioch on Handel. Actually, Handel's part scarcely goes beyond the first four notes ("lift up your heads" from Messiah). The bounce of the last few bars has the distinct flavor or a New England fuging tune by Billings, Holden or Read.
Silent Night dates from 1818. On December 24 Joseph Mohr, who was assistant priest of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Upper Austria, asked Franz Gruber (1787-1863), a schoolmaster who was the acting organist, to set the text that he had written for duet, choir, and guitar. Gruber composed the tune that very day for first performance at the Christmas Eve midnight celebration. The song was first spread throughout Tyrol by an organ repairman called to fix the broken organ. In 1831 it was sung by a popular group called the Strasser Sisters at the Leipzig fair. In 1840 it was first published at Dresden in a collection of "genuine Tyrolean songs, sung by the Strasser Sisters." Tyrolean singing was then popular, and the tune quickly spread to America where the tune with an English translation of the text was printed at Cincinnati in the Christian Hymn Book, 1865.