Musica Sacra

Feliz Navidad

December 14, 2013

A Spanish Christmas

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A word on the weather:

Musica Sacra very rarely cancels performances due to weather related reasons. Please assume the event will go on as scheduled at 7pm tonight. First Church is conveniently accessible by public transportation from most directions in Greater Boston and free covered parking is available to ticket holders. 

In the highly unlikely event that our performance is cancelled, the decision will be communicated no later than 1pm. Notice will be provided here and by recorded message at 617-349-3400. If a cancellation occurs, further information will be provided to ticket holders which may include options for exchanging tickets for a future performance on a space-available basis, donating the value of unused tickets for charitable donation credit, or a possible refund.

The Spanish speaking world has a strong tradition of celebrating Christmas with festive song.  From the time of the early Renaissance they heard the sacred motets in the Catholic Church, and then they came home and sang the villancicos de navidad, Christmas carols.   Musica Sacra presents an array of motets and villancicos from past and present that you won't want to miss!

The concert features Conrad Susa's Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest for marimba, guitar and harp, plus villancicos, carols, and motets from the New World and the Old, followed by carols for all to sing.

We welcome you to join Mary and the singers of Musica Sacra for a festive, free reception immediately following the concert!

Covid-19 Protocols

Musica Sacra is requiring that all performers, volunteers, and audience members show proof of vaccination against Covid-19, or a negative PCR test within 3 days or an antigen test within 6 hours in order to attend concerts in-person. Additionally, we require that masks be worn at all times by audience members and performers. Audience members will be spaced apart in the sanctuary to allow for social distancing.

Performance Venue

Purchase tickets for this performance

Advance ticket sales for this 7:00 concert have closed, however, some tickets remain and will be available at the door beginning at 6:00 PM. We hope to see you at the concert.

Performance Notes

Welcome to Musica Sacra's concert ¡Feliz Navidad! Tonight we explore the tradition of Christmas music in the Spanish speaking world. As you will hear, it is overwhelmingly a tradition of unbridled joy in welcoming the Christ child to earth with few intimations of Jesus's ultimate sacrifice of crucifixion. Instead, celebration abounds.

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, pre-date printed music, first showing up in print during the 16th century, making those of Francisco Guerrero some of the earliest. The word villancico is a diminutive of the word villano, meaning peasant, and the original villancicos had rustic associations. In the late 16th century the form came to be used more and more for religious music, and by the 18th century it came to mean Christmas carol. The villancico's form alternates specific verses with a repeating refrain.

While the days of Advent are a time of fasting and repentance in the Christian calendar, the Spanish speaking world anticipates the revelry and celebration of Christmas long before December 25th. Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Spain, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th begins the observance of the Christmas season, even though that Holy Day recognizes the conception of Mary and not the virgin birth of her son. The season of revelry continues for almost a month, ending on January 6th, known as Three Kings Day or the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian Church calendar, the day which commemorates the visit of the magi at the stable to adore the Christ child.

Even the Feast of the Innocents, December 28th in the Christian calendar, is a cause for merriment in the Spanish speaking countries of the world. The day commemorates the slaughter of all children two years or younger by Herod, King of Jerusalem, in his attempt to eliminate the "King of the Jews" which the three kings had asked him about on their journey to the stable. One of the oldest English carols, the Coventry Carol, tells the story of this massacre, and Michael Mendoza uses its text. It is hard to imagine this feast day as an opportunity for jollity. However, in Spain, the Feast of the Innocents is observed by playing practical jokes. When caught out in a joke, the trickster cries: "inocente!" (innocent!).

The works you hear tonight paint a musical picture of the non-musical means by which the Spanish-speaking world keeps Christmas: lighting oil lamps; dancing; platters of fresh and dried fruit; aguinaldo (children caroling in their neighborhood in exchange for sweets or coins); and pessebres (nativity plays telling the story of Jesus's birth and visits by the shepherds and kings). Mexico's main Christmas ritual, La Posada, is descended from its Spanish ancestor; it reenacts Joseph's and Mary's search for shelter, which ends at the stable. The irregular rhythms of Guerrero's villancicos capture both the excitement of the simple shepherds as they approach the baby in the manger and the revelry occasioned by the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the magi.

While the secular tradition of song focuses on the festive atmosphere of the season, the sacred tradition, as illustrated by the motets on tonight's program, contemplates the mystery of God's descent to earth as a vulnerable baby.

Cristóbal de Morales's O magnum mysterium is undeservedly overshadowed by the setting of that text by his countryman, Tomás Luis de Victoria, a contemporary of William Byrd in England and Palestrina in Italy, and perhaps Spain's best known composer. Both Victoria and Morales were trained in Rome, where the style of Renaissance polyphony, originating almost two hundred years earlier in the Netherlands with the composers Ockegem and Obrecht, had reached its most polished form. In Morales's Pastores dicite you can hear the elegant effect of this style, with its independent imitative lines weaving in and out like strands of a braid, but the emotional impact upon the listener stems more from a cerebral appreciation of the craft than from the success of the music in conveying the emotion inherent to the text. Even the final refrain of "Noé" (Noel) sounds, in comparison to the raucously rhythmic villancicos, detached from any joy. However, the stately iteration of the word the infant by all voices moving simultaneously, known as homophony, in answer to the question What did you see, shepherds? needs no musical directive by the composer; the slow tempo and the unison declamation demand a hushed and reverent tone to convey the shepherds' sense of awe at the import of what they saw. Morales uses this same homophony in a slow tempo, which we interpret to imply a piano dynamic, to begin O magnum mysterium; in it we hear his awe at the enormous significance of the omnipotent Christian God coming to earth as a helpless baby born in the humblest of circumstances.

Ave Maria, the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary informing her that, although a virgin, she will bear God's son, appears in Luke's Gospel. At the greeting's end, the early Christian Church added a supplication to Mary to intercede for sinners, and the resultant prayer has become the most common prayer of the Roman Catholic Church. However, Victoria uses a text that replaces the abjectly humble final line of the prayer — pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death — with one of hope: pray for us sinners and let us, in the company of the elect, see you. By setting the text for two equal choirs of mixed voices, Victoria creates an antiphonal effect in which they may call and respond. He anticipates the hopeful final phrase by setting pray for us sinners in a triple rhythm, musical shorthand for joy.

In our main selection of the evening, Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest, Conrad Susa gathers and presents ten traditional carols from throughout the Spanish speaking world in a seamless stream of music. Interspersed among carols originating in the Spanish regions of Biscay (number I), Catalonia (II and VIII), Andalusia (VI and IX), and Castile (number VII), are carols from Puerto Rico (number III), and Mexico (number X), as well as carols sung throughout Spain (IV and V). Some of these carols may be familiar to you. Regrettably, Mr. Susa passed away just a few weeks ago, on November 21, in San Francisco. Besides our performance of his beloved Carols and Lullabies this evening, we performed his lovely arrangement of Shenandoah in our concert last May commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.

Joaquin Zamacois composed both melody and settings for his two villancicos you hear tonight. Born in Santiago, Chile, Zamacois became a teacher at the Conservatory in Barcelona and is known mainly for his writings on music theory and his orchestral compositions. It is a shame that he did not compose more works for chorus; both of these pieces capture the sonorities of Spain as well as the emotions inherent to their respective texts.

We hope that tonight's concert, like the luminarias traditionally lit at Christmas in New Mexico, will provide you with warmth and light in this cold and dark season. The early Catholic Church, in its decision to celebrate Jesus's birth at the Winter Solstice, allowed its faithful to incorporate pre-existing pagan customs in their honoring of Jesus's birth. May we all find joy in the traditions and rituals of this time, especially the sharing of song.

© 2013 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.