By Thomas May
Midnight Miracle: Charpentier’s Messe de minuit pour Noël
Marc-Antoine Charpentier is something of an enigmatic figure from the French baroque: Even the year of his birth (probably in the 1640s) is a matter of guesswork. Jean-Baptiste Lully, his arrogant, domineering contemporary, eclipsed him in fame. Yet Charpentier did have a knack for making good connections, including important aristocratic patrons who brought him—at least peripherally—into the sphere of the Sun King Louis XIV’s resplendent court. In his youth he spent three years in Rome, bringing his knowledge of contemporary Italian vocal style back with him to Paris.
Charpentier composed an enormous quantity of music both sacred and secular. For a time he wrote scores for Molière’s company, and an appointment as music master of the leading Jesuit church (St. Louis) gave him access to many of the leading opera singers of the era for his highly imaginative Mass settings, motets, and other liturgical compositions. The Messe de minuit, likely dating from the early 1690s, has become one of the best-known works of a composer still being rediscovered and is emblematic of his creative approach to setting the ultra-familiar texts.
Charpentier merges sacred and secular elements by drawing most of his musical material from close to a dozen French noëls (carols) of his time. These melodies were a form of popular music, in turn derived from disparate sources (either liturgical plainchant or secular song). Their frequently buoyant, danceable character allows Charpentier freshly to illuminate the wonderful duality of Christmas: In the very dead of night, when the year has reached its darkest point, the Midnight Mass celebrates the nativity as a rebirth of hope.
The instrumental ensemble sometimes introduces the carol tunes before soloists and choir take them up; elsewhere it provides interludes that elaborate on the carols. A formal chant leads into both the Gloria and the Credo, yet noëls soon enter into the fabric—their naturalness a measure of Charpentier’s artistry. The Credo in particular represents a remarkable fusion of light-hearted melody and high drama (the silence, for example, preceding the Crucifixus). For the concluding Agnus Dei, Charpentier inserts a clever summary of the spirit of the whole Mass by using the carol “A minuit fut fait un réveil” (“At midnight there was an awakening”), its impulsive joy an unforced expression of faith.
The Local Color of Ariel Ramírez
Early on in his career, Ariel Ramírez was attracted to the wealth of folk and popular traditional music he encountered in the highlands of his native Argentina. Like his compatriot Astor Piazzolla, he pursued classical training side by side with his involvement in this music drawn from everyday life. Even a period of study in Europe in the early 1950s only strengthened Ramírez’s fascination with the indigenous traditions of Argentina. When he returned to his homeland, he tirelessly started collecting a goldmine of material.
In the mid-1960s this research sparked a flurry of new compositions from Ramírez, in most notably the epochal Misa Criolla—a vernacular, folk setting of the Mass in 1964, early in the Vatican II era, which foreshadowed a wave of later composers who would emulate its vivid approach to authentic folk idioms. The same year also gave birth to Navidad Nuestra, Ramírez’s similarly inflected musical account of the nativity. He reimagines the miracle as occurring in the countryside of northern Argentina, drawing on a distinct regional flavor for each of the work’s six sections. They share the vibrantly colorful, direct appeal of folk art but in fact represent the composer’s skillful stylistic imitations. Navidad Nuestra reaffirms the paradox that local, specific contexts are where the universal resounds most persuasively.
The lucidly lyrical texts by poet Félix Luna (b. 1925) pepper their Spanish with Guaraní vocabulary from the indigenous people and include references to local features: for Dios ha nacido, Dios está aquí (“God is born, God is here”). Similarly, Ramírez deploys musical idioms and instruments that are deeply rooted in Argentine folk tradition, along with male vocal solos and chorus (particular instrumental arrangements can vary from one performance to another).
Many of these idioms have a rhythmic signature associated with dance forms, ritual, or song. La Anunciación (“The Annunciation”) uses a polka-like rhythm introduced by German immigrants, closing with a magically bending cadence. The gentle melancholy of La Peregrinación (“The Pilgrimage”) suggests the lonely life of the cowboy on the pampas. For El Nacimiento (“The Nativity”) itself, Ramírez turns to a formula associated with folk song (vidala) – in this case, a dotted rhythm often used in sad love songs. Notice, too, his marvelous painting with the chorus for the scene of the birth at night.
Despite its extroverted expression, Los Pastores (“The Shepherds”) is modeled on a type of mourning song. Los Reyes Magos (“The Three Wise Kings”), by contrast, make their approach to catchy music associated with the Carnival season. With La Huida (“The Flight”), Navidad concludes with escape from the danger posed by Herod—into Egypt in the gospels, but to an unnamed tierra major (“better land”) in Luna’s poem. The dotted rhythm comes again from folk song, the music pared down yet dramatically evocative.
A Vaughan Williams Fantasia
Much as literary scholars began to record folk tales and legends for fear they would otherwise face extinction, numerous composers turned their attention early in the twentieth century to folk music with the intention of preserving a dying treasure.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of these composers. Like Ramírez or Bartók, his preoccupation with collecting and recording folk songs inspired his own creative work. Beginning in the early years of the century Vaughan Williams eventually tracked down hundreds in his research traveling through the English countryside. His breakthrough as a composer came in 1910 with the first performance of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.
Both of these preoccupations—indigenous folk music as well as the beauty of English Renaissance vocalism as appreciated from a post-Romantic perspective—come into play in the Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Following this early piece, Vaughan Williams returned again to Christmas-inspired themes at several points in his career, including for his final grand choral work, the nativity cantata Hodie (1954). The Fantasia is far more modestly scaled, yet is structured masterfully to create an original statement from its source material. It was premiered at Hereford Cathedral in 1912, a year after the Five Mystical Songs—also written for a similar array of solo baritone, chorus, and orchestra.
Vaughan Williams isn’t interested in stitching together a mere hodgepodge of carol melodies. In fact, the three main traditional tunes he chooses as musical material are hardly the usual suspects from the hit parade. His score makes the most of this relative unfamiliarity to build a fresh sense of narrative, presenting an imaginatively unified reconstruction of originally unrelated carols. The Fantasia unfolds in four seamlessly connected sections. It begins in darkness and expectation, with a lonely solo cello and then baritone solo. A wordless chorus slowly steals in, underscoring the prevailing elegiac tone. The traditional text for this opening (and longest) section, “The Truth Sent from Above,” presents a capsule summary of humanity’s fall and need for redemption.
A tapering back to the solo cello leads us into a choral setting of “Come All You Worthy Gentlemen.” This robust melody is followed by the danceable joy of a third, scored as a call-and-response for baritone and chorus: “On Christmas Night”—otherwise known as the Sussex Carol (the composer recorded during his field work in the south of England). The Fantasia then builds in its last section to a glorious climax, reinforcing the sense of new hope with bells and organ. Vaughan Williams magnificently dovetails the second and third carols with references to others (“A Virgin Most Pure” and—listen for it, as it’s only fragmentary—the familiar “The First Nowell”). But the most touching moment is left for the final pages, which he fashions as a tender choral fade-out, as if the voices are receding into the distance: a faint echo now of New Year hopes to be cherished, like a lone candle lighting our way.
Spreading the Joy: Susa’s A Christmas Garland
Conrad Susa is a composer steeped in the world of theater, with five operas at the center of his catalogue. Based in the Bay Area—he teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory—Susa in fact developed his craft as a resident composer for San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and also served as music director and composer for theatrical productions on Broadway; for a time he was dramaturg at the O’Neill Center in Danbury, Connecticut. Susa has written scores for documentaries and PBS productions as well, along with choral and instrumental pieces.
A Christmas Garland was prompted by a commission from the Columbus, Ohio-based Cantari Singers. They requested a carol medley that would invite audience participation. But Susa, who had been stalled with the project, found specific inspiration in the idea of honoring the memory of a close friend from the theater—the director, actor, and stage manager Nikos Kafkalis—who died a couple of months before Christmas in 1988. (Susa had written incidental music for several of his productions on Broadway.)
The composer thus arranges this Garland so that the carols tell a theatrically involving narrative, beginning with the hopeful tidings of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” His selection of carols draws from English, French, and even American sources and represents the breadth of carol traditions: from anonymous sources extending back for centuries—embodying pagan sources in some cases—to the relatively modern (“We Three Kings,” whose words and music were penned by American clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in the mid-nineteenth century). Susa considers the effect of the joyful birth on the common people (the French traditional “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”) as well as the celebration this inspires (“The Holly and the Ivy”).
The symbolic “I Saw Three Ships” reminds us that this is a season of re-examining our lives and recovering a sense of wonder—as well as of innocence, expressed in the touching “Coventry Carol” lullaby that marks the arrival of the Magi. The familiar story is then extended to the audience to continue, in the noble melody (from the early eighteenth century) of “Adeste fidelis.” With Susa’s nod to Handel in “Joy to the World,” the call to celebrate becomes global.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.