An American Christmas (2014)

Saturday December 13, 2014
An American Christmas (2014)

This holiday season, we invite you and your families to join us for An American Christmas.

On the program are works with a distinctly American sound: Spirituals, Appalachian carols, and pieces from the American shape note tradition. The program also includes contemporary works, including Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium and Boston native Daniel Pinkham’s brilliant Nativity Madrigals.

Immediately following the concert will be Musica Sacra’s annual, spirited sing-along of traditional carols. Finally, all of our audience members are invited to a free post-concert reception. This is a wonderful concert for the whole family.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Welcome to Musica Sacra’s An American Christmas; we’re glad you’ve joined us for our exploration of the musical offerings that America has contributed to celebrate and honor the Christmas season. These offerings are gathered from four traditions: the African-American spiritual, shape-note hymnody, the choral settings of tunes from the oral or “folk” heritage, and compositions of American classical composers.

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Most striking to me in contemplating tonight’s music is the commonality they have in their expressive intent; throughout styles and eras, composers embrace the mission of their music to convey the emotion inherent to the text and, in many cases, to illustrate words and phrases within that text. Pinkham’s musical representation of the hoot of an owl declares that creature to be the guardian referenced in the title of his first Nativity Madrigal. The chromatic descent of the lower three parts to accompany the king bearing myrrh to the Christ child in We three kings provides a chilling reminder of His death on the cross, since myrrh was used to embalm the dead. Listen to the snapping rhythms in Carol that Supply Belcher’s uses to set the word glory; the exuberance elicited by those rhythms jumps out and grabs you. I learned just last week that the existence of this 18th century composer is made known to every school child in his adopted state of Maine, as is the correct pronunciation of his name: supplee.

The Puritan religion, like that of Calvinism, allowed first only the singing of Psalms and then of Biblical texts in church. Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century English Congregationalist minister, thought to render these texts in poetry, making them much more accessible to the layperson. English composers set his poems and the resulting hymns traveled to America along with the Evangelical movement of the Great Awakening. Belcher, like Daniel Read, realized he could set those texts himself, and did so, to popular American acclaim. In printing the music, each note was assigned one of four shapes, which made sight reading of the line much easier to master and gave the style its name of shape-note singing. This style of composition, also known as Sacred Harp, for the vast collection of harmonized tunes published under that title in the 19th century, assigned the melody to the tenor line and the harmonic accompaniment to the other lines; in our concert we start this way but then have the tenor and soprano parts doubled on the octave, as was usually done in congregational singing. You will hear tonight all three forms of composition in shape-note hymnody: the plain tune, the fuging tune, and the anthem. The first two are strophic and the last is through composed.

Many of tonight’s composers are not only American, but, like Belcher, New Englanders: Ingalls from Andover; Pinkham from Lynn and Cambridge; Jay Rogers from Cambridge; Supply Belcher from Maine; Ives from Connecticut; and Charles Turner and Carson Cooman from the Boston area. Boston, through the compositions of the 18c composer William Billings, was the birthplace of shape-note hymnody in America, but it also provided the person responsible for its demise. Lowell Mason, a nineteenth century musician, promulgated the idea that it was more cultured and refined to have Western classical music from Europe performed in the church by choirs and organists. As a result, the tradition of shape-note singing in church became associated with the less-educated classes and died out in most cities, surviving solely in isolated communities in the South. Star in the East and Morning Star were both written later than those mentioned earlier; the former was written by a Carolinian for another collection called Southern Harmony, and Morning Star was written by Robert Lowry, the composer of perhaps the best-known of Gospel hymns: Shall we gather by the river. Ironically, shape-note singing was rediscovered and revived in academic circles of the Northeast during the 1970s; Norumbega Harmony, led by Steve Marini here in the Boston area, is one of three groups responsible for its Renaissance. Anyone is welcome to attend their weekly sessions of singing from the original book of Sacred Harp as well as from a new book that contains newly composed pieces by members of the gathering, one of whom is a former member of Musica Sacra!

Four of the pieces on tonight’s program are designated as “Appalachian carols.” I suspect that these carols, like the works in Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony, were first broadly disseminated around the country, but then became superseded in populous areas by new forms of culture. They escaped extinction by their continued cultivation in pockets of the country, such as the Appalachian mountains, which by their geographic and geological nature were less accessible to new trends in music. A lot of these tunes of Appalachia were rediscovered and disseminated by the early twentieth century folk singer John Jacob Niles. All of tonight’s selections demonstrate a preference for a more contemplative mood; two of the four are lullabies and the other two would be appropriate as lullabies; this use might even have ensured their survival.

In the tradition of the African American spiritual, the introspective contemplation of the woes of Jesus and the trials of the slave are balanced by an equally strong jubilant celebration of the glories of Heaven and the birth of Jesus as the means by which Heaven becomes accessible to those on earth. Thus, Oh poor little Jesus, like the Appalachian carol I wonder as I wander, dwells on the tragic ending to Jesus’s short life, while Go tell it on the mountain celebrates Jesus’s birth as the means to salvation. Mary and her little baby, like the Appalachian lullabies, describes Mary singing to her baby and, in doing so, becomes a lullaby. We are particularly pleased to perform a lovely arrangement of Rise up shepherd and follow, composed by a former tenor in Musica Sacra: Jay Rogers.

HT Burleigh, probably the best known of the early arrangers of spirituals, was a baritone in New York City; despite the unspoken segregation of the time, JP Morgan provided the overriding vote to instate him in the otherwise all white choir at St. George’s Episcopal church. In his career as a singer there, he arranged and performed many spirituals he had heard sung by his maternal grandfather, who would sing them as he lit the gas lamps in Burleigh’s hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. In this arrangement you can hear a signature of Burleigh’s compositional style: the increasingly chromatic harmonic setting of the strophic verse. Willis Laurence James and Mark Fax were on the faculties of Spellman College and Howard University respectively, while Albert Schmutz was the first choral instructor at the only camp I ever attended: the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Sadly, none of these settings of spirituals are at present in print, but we feel they deserve to still be heard.

In our last category of music newly composed by conservatory trained Western classical musicians, only two of our selections are not by some one living on the East Coast: Kirke Mechem and Morten Lauridsen both work in California. Mechem’s Christmas Carol is a charming example of a newly composed lullaby. The 6/8 meter creates the soothing effect of a lullaby, although the rhythm of the accompaniment, in being 1 beat plus 2 beats rather than the common 2 beats plus 1 beat gives the impression of a limp, thereby underscoring the arduousness of the magi’s journey. Mechem asks for an extended ritard throughout the final stanza, musically depicting the baby Jesus falling asleep before the end of the angels’ song. O magnum mysterium is probably Lauridsen’s best known work; the slightly dissonant harmonies, in which one or two voices clash by a second from a note within a consonant chord, create a miasmic effect but also achieve subtle word painting. As Brian Middleton, a tenor in the group, observed, the addition of a major ninth to the minor triad setting the word Virgo—thereby creating a dissonance of a minor second within the chordal texture—masterfully evokes the pain and loneliness of Mary as the mother who foresees her infant son’s future suffering.

Carson Cooman is composer in residence at Harvard’s Memorial Church and an extremely prolific creator of music. His Adam lay ibounden, with which we open our concert, expresses Christians’ excitement at the birth of Christ through the scalar runs in the organ accompaniment and the ever varying compound meters, in which notes are grouped in 3 groups of 2, or 2 groups of 3, or even in groups of 2 plus 3. In Nowell, Charles Turner similarly establishes an ebullient mood by his use of the irregular 5/8 meter, which lurches between duple and triple, such that dancing to it would necessitate a Frankenstein-like gait. However, Turner intersperses this rambunctious jollity with a more flowing and contemplative section to comment upon the significance of Jesus’s birth as the means of human salvation expounded in Christian theology. These two boisterous offerings bookend a choral arrangement of Charles Ives’s tender carol Little child of Bethlehem. We end the evening’s program with an extravagant treatment by the New Jersey composer Steven Pilkington of one of the few well known Christmas carols that happens to be written by an American: We three kings. I think you will find that this arrangement evokes the fireworks display one might see on Independence Day, with each verse becoming more elaborate than its predecessor until the final verse bursts out in a musical extravaganza.

Daniel Pinkham is one of our country’s national treasures, and Massachusetts should be particularly proud to have nurtured, educated and employed him for over eighty years. Though born in Lynn, Pinkham lived in Cambridge for his entire career, and on any day one might have run into him shopping at Leo’s Market or Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge. I have performed many of Dan’s works over the years, including a Magnificat he wrote especially for us, but I find the Nativity Madrigals to be his most endearing and moving work, due to Dan’s affinity for both picking and setting these texts. The poems he used are by the Cambridge poet Norma Farber, herself a classically trained singer; each one considers the events of Jesus’s birth from a different standpoint. In the first, the observer is an owl in the stable where Jesus is born; we know this because Dan takes the pronoun who and sets it twice as the bird call whoo. The bird acts as major-domo for those coming to see Jesus. Dan captures musically the visitors’ successive emotions of fear and disconnection through forte dynamics and harmonic dissonance, as well as the owl’s calm assuaging and matter-of-fact managing of the callers.

In the second madrigal, written from Mary’s perspective, Farber and Pinkham explore the possible implications of the verse in chapter two of Luke: But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. The insight by Farber that Mary would be unappreciative of the wise men’s gifts is brilliant, as is Dan’s setting of her words: Go now, all of you. Let me raise him / as one among others, a regular / boy. Thanks for your praise / and what you say about a star. I mean, these first few days: / don’t make me look too far. The harmonies limning the first half of the text are major, implying the simple joys common to all in a normal childhood. Pinkham writes an expansive melisma on the word star to signify the brilliance of that star which led the kings to the stable. The phrase too far, which ends the piece, follows a hesitant line by all four voices singing in unison; the final minor chord portends Jesus’s brutal and tragic death. Pinkham contrasts this wonderfully with his musical expression of Mary’s exasperation with which the piece begins; he does this through the use of pauses in the music and the cadence of the rhythms that set the words.

In the third piece, concerning the gifts not of the wise men to Jesus but of Him to them, Pinkham’s music illustrates the desperation of the drowning man and the ebullience of …a laugh, like rising sun / before the day has quite begun. In the fourth madrigal, a novel consideration of the effect of Christ’s birth on the creatures of the sea, Pinkham’s ungainly intervals and harmonies provide a musical representation of the awkward locomotion of sea creatures like the crab and starfish. He also provides a wonderful touch in setting and listened for word from Bethlehem; from the extended chord in the men’s voices on the word listened, one easily imagines the sea creatures craning their respective necks to hear better the distant news. In the final poem, Pinkham captures musically the let down that follows the Christmas euphoria as Farber describes the departure of the various visitors. His harmonies capture the ferocity of the animals and the glorious majesty of the everyday world in this aftermath.

Pinkham knows the way to make the human voice sound its best, as you can hear in the final chords of the last two pieces in this set. He knows exactly in which tessitura each voice sounds most vibrant and the optimal disposition of the voices—their proximity to each other in the chord—to make the final chord easy to tune and to resonate. As such his music both showcases the best in choral sound and powerfully speaks to the emotions, making it among the most rewarding to sing and to share.

We hope that you enjoy observing this holiday season through these purely American idioms, and that you will take the opportunity to enjoy with us the gift of making music as we close our evening with a sing-along of familiar carols.

© 2014 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.