NOTES BY ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Los Angeles Master Chorale
It has almost become traditional for Chorale concerts to open with the luminous, ascetic Ave Maria of Victoria. This evening, however, the Chorale presents another setting of this text: the warm, rich, impassioned texture of Russian liturgical music. Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote this as the sixth motet of the Vespers, Op. 35, in 1915. It opens quietly. At Sancta Maria, the sopranos and the tenors bracket the parallel thirds of the altos with a soaring melody in octaves. At Ora pro nobis, the entrance of the basses triggers a massive climax. The emotion is soon spent. The work ends quietly.
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930, rev. 1934) was written when Benjamin Britten was 17 years old. It has a simple and appealing tune that is heard three times, the third stanza being slightly more elaborate in texture. The modal tonality has no suggestion of the sham antique, but IS well suited to the very attractive medieval words. Wassail Song, the last of Five English Folk Songs "freely arranged" by Vaughan Williams in 1913, is in a fast triple time. From the first entrance of the tune the forward motion never ceases. This fine, secular carol evokes a very British Ghost of Christmas Past. One can almost see old Fezziwig dancing. A Ceremony of Carols was written by Benjamin Britten in 1942. The structure of this composition is reminiscent of the carol service prevalent in Anglican churches on Christmas Eve. It is written to Middle English texts by James, John and Robert Wedderburn, Robert Southwell, William Cornish and anonymous authors carefully chosen by Britten for their poetic imagery and the antique flavor of the language. As with all his vocal music, Britten accomplishes his aims by the use of inspired figuration in the accompaniments - this indeed is a basic feature of his style; the pregnant motif sounds deceptively simple to the ear, yet on examination it is invariably seen to be far from obvious and extremely ingenious.
Thus in A Ceremony of Carols, in which the total effect must appear to be unsophisticated, his method is the repetition of significant figures. The charmingly individual sections of the composition display mediations arid paeans on various aspects of the Nativity.
Daniel Pinkham was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, to a prominent family engaged in the manufacture of patent medicines—his great-grandmother was Lydia E. Pinkham. Schooled at Philips Academy and Harvard, he now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has held teaching positions at Boston and Harvard Universities, served as harpsichordist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently is the organist at Boston's historic King's Chapel and a member of the faculty of the New England Conservatory. "More than the majority of his contemporaries, Pinkham has searched throughout the periods of music history for materials to be use~ expressively in his compositions. While he often seems to favor the very old and the new, one senses an intense interest in the Baroque era." (Marlow W. Johnson, American Choral Review, Vol. VIII No.4).
Christmas Cantata (subtitled Sinfonia Sacra) is in three contrasted movements. The first movement begins with a declamatory maestoso built on a pedal G. "Shepherds, what did you see? Speak! Tell us what appeared on earth." The shepherds' reply (the body of the movement) is allegro molto ritmico and paints a picture of almost incoherent exultation as they stammer: “Born- we saw Him born ... "-each gasp punctuated by roulades on a solo trumpet. Finally, they gather their wits about them and tell the rest of the news: "and a chorus of angels praising the lord. Alleluia."
The second movement, adagio, is also a setting of a Renaissance motet text : "0 great mystery, that animals should see the lord born and lying in a manger." This time the trumpets have a modal ostinato, rising and falling over a pedal D. The vorces, in long ornamented phrases, establish a mood of impassioned contemplatron. The movement ends quietly and expectantly with a D major chord superimposed over a D minor, an ambiguous effect that Pinkham seems to enjoy. The final movement is an allegro on "Glory to God in the highest," in a form earlier used by Praetorius in his Canticum trium puerorum: a refrain, with contrasting verses of increasing complexity. At the last
refrain the trumpets peal forth in joyous polytonality, always returning, however, to the tonal center of G major.
Christmas Carols Old and New
For the last several weeks, we have all been bombarded with the Muzak version of Christmas carols in countless department stores. Subjected to the constant repetition, we tend to forget that many of these carols, simple though they may be, are music of the highest order. In response to numerous requests, the second half of this evening's program is devoted to a selection of the best and most familiar carols, as well as a few novelties. Sing We Now of Christmas is a French carol probably from the fifteenth century. It was certainly well known by the sixteenth, since it is mentioned in Rabelais' Pantagruel. Salli Terri's setting is sumptuously Oriental, emphasizing the mention of the Wise Men in the text. Three Carols on Gregorian Themes range from a note for note quotation of the chant theme by Wilbur Chenoweth to the mere use of the first phrase by Max Reger. Adora Te devote is a Communion hymn to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament by St. Thomas Aquinas. Wilbur Chenoweth has based his carol Do You Know the Newborn Child? on the same melody to honor Christ as a tiny Babe. Resonet in laudibus is a joyous song celebrating the birth of Mary's Son. Max Reger uses the opening phrase of the chant transmuted by a rocking rhythm into a lullaby. The Virgin's Slumber Song, though otherwise melodically original, derives its mood and impetus from the triadic opening phrase. Puer natus est nobis, the Introit of the Third Mass of Christmas, is from the earlier and more golden age of Gregorian chant. Dr. Wagner has made the translation of the Latin text for his fantasy on the chant theme. Three Christmas Spirituals. Mary Had a Baby is an example of the spiritual at its most contemplative. In delightful contrast, The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy is bright, fast, and somewhat jazzy. Jesus,Jesus, Rest Your Head is a "white" spiritual from the Appalachian Mountain region. It was collected by John Jacob Niles who devoted his career to collecting and preserving folk songs of this region. Un Melange de Noels Favoris avec les Jouers de Cloches might be more prosaically referred to as a medley of favorite carols sung by the Chorale with the happy addition of bell ringers (and all other musicians on stage). II Est Ne is an old French carol learned by Roger Wagner as a child and later translated and arranged by him. Now is born the Divine Christ Child Sing Noel! God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, an infectiously cheerful London tune dating back at least to the seventeenth century, was immortalized by Dickens in his A Christmas Carol. Deck the Halls could well have been sung by the Welsh before the Christian missionaries arrived. In any case, it is a secular carol in honor of the pre-Christian Yuletide festivities. Good King Wenceslas is not, strictly speaking, a Christmas carol, but rather the story of an incident in the life of the legendary King of Bohemia. The "Feast of Stephen" occurs on December 26 in honor of the first martyr to the Christian faith. Anges de Nos Campagnes. It is said that Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome in 129 A.D., ordained that the "Angel's Song" be solemnly sung on the holy night of the Nativity. Whether Angels We Have Heard on High is actually the "Angel's Song" of Telesphorus' time or not, it is undoubtedly one of the first purely Christian hymns.