Musica Sacra

Lessons and Carols

Saturday December 3, 2011 at 8:00 PM

An evening of readings from the Christmas story mingled with a glorious variety of carols and motets

Lessons and Carols

A wide selection of composers—from as near as Boston and as far away as Sweden, from Renaissance and Baroque Europe to hot off the press—puts a unique twist on this beloved British tradition. This evening of carols both familiar and unexpected is sure to fill you with the warmth and light of the season.

Program

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Concert Program Notes

At a time of year when civilizations throughout time have turned to festivals of light to ward off the darkness surrounding them, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, God come to earth, not as the judge they expected, but as God incarnate: a helpless baby of flesh and blood who would redeem them. Tonight, Musica Sacra honors this tradition with a concert predicated upon the British tradition of Lessons and Carols.

As stated in the order of service for the Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, the tradition of Lessons and Carols originated in 1880, when E. W. Benson, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, created the service—consisting of nine lessons from the Hebrew Bible and New Testaments, along with nine carols—for Christmas Eve. The various Biblical selections refer to the need for and foretelling of a savior in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth in the New Testament. Tonight we select five of those texts to illuminate the intentions of the carols and motets selected for this program.

The text of the first motet tonight, from the Gospel of John, represents the most abstract account of Jesus' birth: the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. I love the way that Hassler repeats his opening music verbatim with one small exception: the words fall on different rhythmic stresses. As a result, the first time you hear the phrase, Hassler emphasizes that the Word was made flesh, while in its reiteration, the stresses accentuate that the word was made flesh. In this manner Hassler celebrates all of the implications of that five word phrase.

The text for Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, is not one included in Lessons and Carols, because it alludes more to the original and literal meaning of Advent as a time to prepare oneself as a Christian for the arrival of God as judge. Based on a parable of Jesus from chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, it concerns the contrasting fates of women prepared for the late arrival of their bridegroom with those unprepared, as an allegory for being prepared for the Day of Judgment. Phillip Nicolai, a 16th century Lutheran pastor, wrote both the melody and the poem, recasting Jesus as the Bridegroom and his faithful as the brides. Hugo Distler used this well known melody as the basis for his choral cantata. His setting pays homage to his German forebears Schütz and Bach, whose respective music bookends the Baroque era of composition in Germany. Like Bach, he quotes Nicolai's melody literally in slower note values in one voice while the other voices take snippets of that melody and imitate each other as they swirl around the original. Like Schütz, Distler skillfully capitalizes on the word stresses within the text, resulting in artfully dancing melodies further enhanced through the use of graceful melismas, in which one syllable of text extends through many notes. These melismas increase the rhythmic complexity with their rhythmic subdivisions into ever-changing groupings of twos and threes. The resulting sound is an effervescent kaleidoscope of dance.

Distler begins the Cantata with the single phrase "Wachet auf" alternated between the alto and soprano voices; to me it calls to mind a person shaking the shoulder of a sound sleeper in predawn darkness. Through the course of the movement this phrase recurs as a unifying element while becoming increasingly elaborate as a means of illustrating the heightened urgency of the admonition. The major tonality and ultimate movement to a triple meter allow the music to remain festive and celebratory rather than admonishing and dire.

For the second movement Distler creates a chorale setting, such as those perfected by Bach to end his Cantatas and to provide commentary in his Passions, with a 20th century harmonic sensibility. It acts as accompaniment to an ethereal duet between sopranos which, once again, alludes to the rhythmically free vocal lines of Schütz's oeuvre. His final movement, in its use of a contrapuntal fugue, once again shows the influence of Bach. While we might not find Distler's music remarkable almost a century after its genesis, it enriches our experience as listeners to recognize that he wrote it at a time when the lush harmonies of late 19c German composers such as Brahms and Wagner were being further explored by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. As such, although being based on German compositional style of three hundred years earlier, Distler's music would have sounded startlingly fresh to contemporaneous ears. His life came to an early and tragic end when, rather than fight in the Nazi army, he committed suicide.

Several other composers of works on this evening's program use well-known Christmas melodies to enrich their holiday offerings. Gunther Raphael set the German carol Maria durch ein'n Dornwald ging, which dates back at least to the 16th century and may have originated in the Middle Ages. While the text celebrates Mary's pregnancy with Jesus, the minor tonality and interpolation of Kyrie eleison—Greek for Lord have mercy upon us—give a poignant foreshadowing of the harsh fate awaiting the as yet unborn child. Similarly, Sandström, Calvisius, Cornelius, and Prætorius take German carols as the springboard to their compositions; Sandström even quotes Prætorius' familiar chorale setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen while building miasmic clusters of sound that musically enshroud the chorale.

Cornelius fashions a setting of another melody and text by Phillip Nicolai celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, which occurs twelve days after Christmas and marks the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Prætorius' festive setting for two equal choruses of the 14th century carol In dulci jubilo ends our concert. Calvisius sets the cradle hymn Joseph, lieber, Joseph mein, which dates from a mystery play of the late 15th century. Like In dulci jubilo, its text is macaronic, meaning that it alternates between two languages; in both cases those languages are German and Latin. The Calvisius motet also alternates between a duple and triple meter; in the triple meter's Mary addresses Joseph and utters soothing sounds to the baby, conveying the sense that she's rocking her infant. In the duple meter, she addresses Jesus directly, saying: Hush, little one. The other motet by Calvisius in tonight's program, Freut euch und jubiliert, has always intrigued me. The melody is not associated with the text, and yet it is almost identical to the one that Bach uses a full century later to set the same text he interpolates into his Magnificat. Was Bach aware of Calvisius' motet, or were they both based on a carol since lost to us? The similarity between the two is too strong to be coincidental.

The two Boston area composers represented on tonight's program both set texts from pre-existing carols. In the case of Siegfried, the text comes from a 15th century English carol extolling the qualities of Mary, while Gustafson's text is a translation of a Danish carol from the early part of the 19th century.

The Costeley selections both concern the shepherds who hear of Jesus' birth from the angels. Noel: sus, debout gentilz pasteurs has a more theological bent to it, citing the Gospel story and the need for Jesus' birth to redeem Christians, while Allons, gay bergeres is delightfully personal, a conversation among the shepherds about going to see the child and what they will plan to bring him. It ends with a verse that has become one of my favorites: the shepherds comment on the fact that the child is suckling so well he doesn't even need a finger to help guide him to the nipple. Most carols concerning Mary and her son focus on her purity and his divinity or on her tender feelings towards him as her son; this one, referring to the logistics of breast-feeding, gives a small glimpse into the more prosaic and practical aspects of the mother-son bond. I love what it says about the text's author and its listeners at the time of its composition: they must have been a down-to-earth bunch.

Some of the notable word-painting among tonight's composers bears mentioning. Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jew who worked in the Count of Gonzaga, as did Monteverdi, creates a stepwise line of a descending fifth to musically represent the opening words of his motet, Drop down, heavens, from above. To complement it, he sets the word open, from the next phrase, on the rising scalar fifth. Heinrich Schütz sets the line so familiar from Handel's Messiah—And his name shall be called wonderful counselor, the mighty God—by sustaining heist in the lower voice of a trio to create a pedal tone; in so doing he creates an aural representation of power. He sets the word peace in languidly slow note values to convey its meaning and juxtaposes that texture with short notes setting shall have no end that dissipate into silence; the cessation of music aurally illustrates 'the end.' The slow moving sonorities and minor key of Victoria's O magnum mysterium enhance the sense of awe and wonder expounded in the text. The triple meters in the Prætorius and Sweelinck celebrate the jubilant feelings inherent to the Christmas season.

I hope that tonight's concert will ease you into the holiday season. So much of today's emphasis at this time of year concerns materialism and consumerism; it's good to learn or remember the original reason to celebrate: the idea that those found wanting are nonetheless accepted. The Christmas story can inspire festivity, joy, awe, and wonder, and, for all here this evening, nothing puts us in touch with those emotions like the art of music.

© 2011 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.