NOTES BY ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Christmas with the Chorale – I
The contemplative and bittersweet motet, O magnum mysterium of Tomas Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611) was written for the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1. This feast, with its ritual shedding of blood, "has always been recognized as a less joyous feast than Nativity. Because Circumcision foreshadows Crucifixion, it is entirely appropriate for Victoria's O magnum mysterium to link with his thrice famous Vere Janguores (Maundy Thursday)." (Robert Stevenson: Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age, p. 438).
In complete contrast is Singt ihr Lieben Christen all! of Michael Praetorius (1571- 1621). This infectiously bubbling motet for double chorus, (SS/SATBB) is a German derivative of the XIV century chant Resonet in laudibus. The four treble parts constantly tumble over each other's entrances in their eagerness to announce the glad tidings that He has appeared!
England of the Restoration is the source of Rejoyce in the Lord allway ... A verse Anthem for 3 voices, with Symphonys &c commonly call'd ye Bell Anthem. Compos'd by Mr. Henry Purcell one of ye Organists to King Charles ye 2d And of St. Peters Westminster. Purcell (1659-1695) probably wrote it in 1684, a year before Charles II died.
The Prelude, with its decending basso ostinato and parallel triads in the upper strings, evokes a pealing of bells at Westminster Abbey. The Anthem, for ATB favoriti, SATB ripieno, strings and continuo, has many felicitous moments. Of particular charm is the dotted rhythm in the instrumental symphonies and (in contrast to the prevailing triple time) the sensitive setting in duple time of the blessing: And the peace of God which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Christen ätzet diesen tag, S. 63
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach became Cantor of Leipzig in the summer of 1723. Although some authorities consider Cantata 63 to date from Bach's sojourn at Weimar (1708-1717) or possibly even to have been specifically composed as a "trial" cantata for his visit to Halle in 1713, it is generally agreed that, if not a new work, its first Leipzig performance was on Christmas Day, 1723. It was sung during the morning service at the Nikolaikirche (probably, according to Spitta, followed after the sermon by the Sanctus in C major, S. 237). "In the evening the cantata was repeated by the same choir in the Thomaskirche; and after the sermon the hymn of the Virgin was sung, set in its Latin form and in an elaborate style. For this purpose Bach wrote his great Magnificat [S. 243]." (Spitta: Vol. II, p. 369).
Cantata 63 is Bach at his most brilliant, joyous and expansive. It is scored for 4 trumpets, tympani, 3 oboes, bassoon, strings and organ continuo. The form of the cantata is quite atypical. It not only opens but closes with a brilliant da capo (ABA form} chorus. There are two duets and three recitatives all of which, in greater or lesser degree, expand into arioso form. (This unusual structure is one of the reasons given for attributing the work to the Weimar period).
The opening chorus, "Christians, engrave this day in gold and marble" utilizes all forces in a movement of surpassing brilliance. The middle section exhorts the listener to hasten to the manger to which he is guided by the Star. An extended alto recitative contemplates the blessings of the holy day and with particular emphasis dwells melismatically on the believer's deliverance from Satan. A leisurely duet for soprano and bass (actually a quartet with the addition of the obbligato oboe and continuo) continues in a mood of quiet thanksgiving.
The solo tenor rejoices in the appearance of David's great Descendant and is joined by the solo alto in a rollicking duet exhorting the faithful to join the dance. The strings, moving in parallel chords, delight the ear of the listener as much as they may dismay the purist of the traditional harmony books. As the bass sings, "Be doubled ye passionate flames of devotion," Bach indulges in one of his delightfully literal gestures and doubles the usual four-part harmony of the recitative to a full eight parts of double reeds and strings. The final chorus, also in da capo form, alternately displays choirs of brass, woodwinds, strings, and voices. A most unusual feature of this final movement is an imitative section for chorus without any accompaniment. In the middle section the propulsive momentum is suddenly halted for a solemn prayer against temptation and the snares of Satan. The "style of the work unmistakably approaches that of oratorio, and this it is which makes it especially remarkable among Bach's cantatas, although it has a very considerable amount of intrinsic musical value." (Ibid. Vol. II, p. 368)
Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27
Benjamin Britten (b. 1913)
The poetry of Wystan Hugh Auden (1907- 1973) fascinated Britten and he often utilized his esoteric treasures. "Words are an immediate stimulus to Britten's imagination . . . [They] seem not merely to stimulate but to challenge his ability to absorb intractable verbal stuff into music . . . [including] Auden's skirmishes on the frontiers of unintelligibility ... [Britten] owed it to himself to write a Hymn to St. Cecilia since he was born on [November 22,1 St. Cecilia's Day." (Frank Howes: Grove's Vol. I, pp. 949, 951}
Hymn to St. Cecilia is in the form of three set pieces, each followed by a refrain. Britten's musical setting (for unaccompanied chorus) reinforces Auden's structure. The theme of the first scene, from which everything else is developed, begins on a high pitch, gradually descends an octave and rises again to close as it began.
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
Auden goes on to describe
the angel's dancing, and the wicked
in Hell's abysses,
all entranced by the Saint's music making. A hushed mezza voce ushers in the refrain:
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
The second tableau is a scherzo on a theme that is a free inversion of the first theme (i.e. beginning on a low note, rising up an octave, and returning to the first low note) in AABBAA' form. "Another distinctive feature of Britten's way with words is his treatment of them in rapid patter to produce the equivalent in vocal music of the scherzo in symphonic. Words are his servants." (Ibid. p. 950)
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play ...
I shall never be
Different. Love me.
The refrain surges and dies away. The final, extended scene is based on a variant of the first theme which evokes the mood of plainsong in a manner reminiscent of Respighi's similar archaism. It is developed in a free, rhapsodic structure first with a wholly choral invocation, closing with
Restore our fallen day; O rearrange.
The Saint is then personalized by a solo soprano :
O dear white children casual as birds,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.
Instruments are invoked: •
O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.
O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long Winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again.
O flute that throbs with the
Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
The final refrain sinks serenely into timelessness.
Christmas with the Chorale II
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943} wrote fifteen numbers for the Russian "Combined Prayer Service," or "All Night Vigil," which consisted of the Vesper and Matin services linked together for the nights of vigil preceding the great holidays. This work was written in 1915 shortly before the composer left Russia for the United States. Two selections are heard tonight, both characterized by rich textures brought about by a multiplicity of parts and the mystical, warmly-subjective approach of the Russian choral tradition.
Four delightful carols follow: The annunciation of the angels to the shepherds by the unique American primitive, William Billings; the haunting Coventry Carol; another English carol in which the Infant tells the story of His birth; and a Christmas confection for children of all ages.
The timeless prayer setting of Blanche Ebert Seaver is followed by a strongly archaic French noel and Robert MacGimsey's meditative Sweet Little Jesus Boy. For the third consecutive season the Chorale is joined by the golden, tintinabulary sonorities of The Handbell Choir; and for at least the fourth season we are pleased to feature a work by Wilbur Chenoweth. This group of carols begins with a lovely Polish carol of the shepherds. Following the Chenoweth work The Handbell Choir is heard in a charming old English carol. Our festive concert concludes with another example of the vast treasury of French noels. As is typical of true folk songs which develop spontaneously, this noel bears a familial resemblance to the popular Angels We Have Heard on High that had developed in another area of France.
A joyous Christmas and a peaceful New Year!