Christmas Concert Program Notes
By Arthur F. Edwards
On Christmas Day, 1607, Jean-Baptiste du Val, a member of the French Embassy in Venice, attended the solemn festivities at St. Mark’s Cathedral, where he heard “organs and diverse instruments of music, especially trombones, cornetti, and violins, with voices mixed among them, all together filling the church with a great and wondrous harmony.”
St. Mark’s was admirably suited for the development of polychoral music. The cappella was one of the largest in Europe. It normally included at least thirty singers and twenty instrumentalists, all holding salaried posts. On festive occasions the choir-schools and fraternities swelled the number of musicians to nearly a hundred. The existence o two organ lofts further extended the possibilities of spatial variety.
Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562), a Flemish composer who became maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, was the first to introduce into music the elements of space and contrast in this salmi spezzati. The unique conditions at St. Mark’s continued to provide inspiration for the two greatest polychoral composers, Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1520-1586) and his nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612).
Andrea Gabrieli, who as a youth had studied with Willaert, became second organist at St. Mark’s in 1566, succeeding Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), who became first organist. It was not until 1584, when Merulo moved to Parma, that Andrea Gabrieli became first organist and his nephew, Giovanni, who had been deputy to Merulo at the first organ, became second organist. After Andrea’s death in 1586, Giovanni was appointed to the first organ, a post which he held until his death.
The greatness and breath-taking novelty of Giovanni Gabrieli’s achievement as a composer has to a certain extent obscured the fact that he started his creative career as the spiritual heir and musical editor of his uncle. As a creator of lavishly designed ecclesiastical compositions for voices and instruments, Gabrieli continued along the path decided upon much earlier by Andrea Gabrieli.
The program begins with the simple monody of the chant Ave Mari, followed by a luminously spiritual setting of the same text by the Spanish master, Victoria (1548-1611). After this quiet opening, we are immediately transported to the splendor of St. Mark’s and the polychoral magnificence of the Gabrielis. Jubilate Deo (Sumphoniae Sacrae I, 1597) utilizes the eight-part chorus in all possible combinations. As is usual with most of Gabrieli’s works, the direction tam voci quam stromenti (either voices or instruments) leaves the assignation of parts to the judgment and resources of the performers. The Christmas motet, Angelus ad pastores ait (Concerti di Andrea et di Giovanni Gabrieli, 1587), is scored for two contrasted choirs, one roughly an octave below the other. It is possible that the lower choir was conceived as being mainly instrumental, since the bassus descends far below the normal range of voices. A Canzone (Symphoniae Sacrae, 1597) for brass choir serves as an interlude while part of the Chorale proceeds to positions simulating the “organ lofts” of St. Mark’s.
The Magnificat of Andrea Gabrieli (also published in the Concerti of 1587) is scored for three contrasting choirs of four parts each. In tonight’s performance, the first (treble) and third (male) choirs are heard from the “lofts.” This brilliant work is notable for its sensitive setting of the Biblical text (Luke 1.46-155).
Buccinate in neomenia tuba (Symphonaie Sacrae II, 1615) demonstrates the full maturity of Giovanni Gabrieli’s genius. Four contrasting choirs are combined in every possible permutation. Each choir emphasizes a different pitch level: choir I ranges from high soprano to baritone; choir II from mezzo-soprano to low lass; choir II is restricted to the lower middle range; choir IV lies almost entirely in the bass clef and is probably designed to be primarily instrumental. In tonight’s performance, choirs I and II are placed in the “organ lofts.” The text, from Psalm 80, summons the faithful to a “solemn feast,” and exhorts them to praise God with instruments and choirs… a fitting text for Gabrieli!
Rercercar con obligo di cantare la quinta parte senza toccarla (“searching-piece, with fifth part that must be sung without being played”) comes from the Fiori musicali, Rome, 1635, that J.S. Bach was to esteem so highly as to copy in its entirety. Frescobaldi, (1583-1643), the most renowned Italian organ virtuoso of any century, looks backward in this particular piece to such compositions as the Tempus faciendi Domine of Jean Conseil (papal singer, (1526-1535) or Emendemus in melius by Morales (c. 1500-1553). A simple six-note theme, ACCBEA, sung this evening by a unison chorus to the word Alleluia, bursts in upon the organ eight different times. Frescobaldi, appealing to the player’s ingenuity, never confesses where the voice-part should enter, any more than Antonio Carreyra, the Portuguese organist who was compositing the same kind of puzzle piece with scattered vocal entries a half-century earlier.
In 1718, Thomas Tudway wrote the following letter to Lord Oxford’s librarian: “I’m very glad that my friend Mr. James Hawkins has ye good fortune to get into his hands ye original score of Mr. Tallis’s 40 parts Anthem, tis unic made an scor’d in Queen Elizabeth’s time… I had been often told of this Composition, but could never believe there was any such thing.” Although “ye original score” has long since disappeared, there is still in existence a manuscript with English text, dating from 1612. This one together scored for eight choirs of five parts (SATBB) each. However, Tallis often uses the choirs in pairs (I and II, answered by VII and VIII, etc.). In the Tutti sections, as many as six parts may be singing the same note; but each part will approach and leave that note by a different route and in different rhythm.
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is unique among the motets of Johann Sebastian Bach. It has but one movement; however the movement may well be divided into three parts, two of which are fugal in character. It is the only motet Bach wrote which includes no chorale and it is the only one in which he restricted himself to four parts throughout. While historically sound reasons and traditions prompt us to believe that all of Bach’s motets should preferably be sung with accompaniment, his Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations allows no choice; its unfigured continuo part probably was supplied by Bach himself. The themes of its first two divisions are capacious and sweeping. The part-writing is virile and resolute throughout the composition and seven measure of exuberant and resounding Alleujas, remind us of other works spoken by David: “Let my mouth be filled with thy praise and with thy honor all the day” (Ps. 71,8). The closing fugue is based on the word Alleluja, which is not to be found in Ps. 117, the basic text of motet No. 6 Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations was first published in 1821 and was the last of Bach’s motets to be printed. It is not known when or for what occasion Bach wrote the motet. Some are inclined to believe that Johann Sebastian Bach composed it while still in his youth. It is possible that it was the first motet written by the composer.
The second half of this program is devoted entirely to Christmas music of contemporary composers. The composers represented, without exception, have utilized techniques, texts or melodies stemming from the earlier tradition.
Benjamin Britten is possibly one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century. Together with Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton, he has reclaimed British music from the eclipse it had suffered since the time of Purcell. According to Frank Howes (Groves, Vo. I, p. 951), “Britten shows many of the marks of the great composer: he is immensely fertile, has no need to strain his imagination by outré experiment or exhibitionist display to achieve originality, can write to order or from impulse with equal certainty of achievement, is quick to take fire from a stimulus and has a facility of equal speed in the act of composition; he is apt to be unself-critical and, because he is a hard worker, to turn out some uninspired stuff, even as Bach and Mozart and Verdi sometimes did. It is, however, with Purcell rather than with any German or Italian composer that Britten has some affinity, both in an actual liking for the older composer, whose figured basses he delights to realize anew, in a common taste for the passacaglia form, in a general Englishness and in the copious versatility in which they are alike.”
A Ceremony of Carols was written 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 meditations and paeans on various aspects of the Nativity.
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930, rev. 1934) was written when 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.
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 used 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). Glory Be To God For Christ Is Born Today is a joyously unpretentious piece which employs the device (previously used by Pinkham in his Christmas Cantata) of a pedal point supporting a rhythmic superstructure.
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. The Coventry Carol (Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant, 1591), the lusty Wassail Song and Angels We Have Heard On High have all survived on their own merit for centuries. The challenge to the arranger is to "dress up" these melodies without obscuring their ingenuous qualities.