An American Christmas

Saturday December 10, 2022
An American Christmas

Come explore the rich traditions of American holiday music—from spirituals to shape note singing, from the hills of Appalachia to the naves of churches.

Highlights include the Nativity Madrigals of Cambridge’s own Daniel Pinkham and Caleb Burhans’s Magnificat.


  • New Carols
    • Caleb Burhans, Magnificat
    • Terry Halco, Christmas Eve
    • Charles Ives, A Christmas Carol
    • Daniel Pinkham, Nativity Madrigals
  • Traditional Carols
    • Cornish Carol, arr Channing Lebebvre, Holy Day, Holly Carol
    • English/Welsh carol, arr James McKelvy, Deck the Halls
    • William Kirkpatrick arr by Ola Gjeilo, Away in a Manger
    • Kevin Siegfried, There is no rose
  • Spirituals
    • Spiritual, arr HT Burleigh, Behold that star!
    • Spiritual, arr Willis Laurence James, Oh, po’ little Jesus
    • Spiritual,arr Jay Rogers, Rise up shepherd and follow
  • Appalachian
    • Appalachian, arr Niles and Horton, I wonder as I wander
    • Appalachian, arr Terri, Jesus, Jesus, rest your head
  • Southern Harmony
    • Robert Lowry, Morning Star
    • Daniel Read, “Sherburne” tune, While shepherds watched

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Musica Sacra happily presents tonight’s concert of all-American holiday music. Our country’s musical traditions draw from many different sources, some of them older than the nation itself. Tonight’s program reflects the diversity of the communities that have come to live here (willingly or unwillingly) over the centuries. The order of tonight’s program generally follows the Christmas story as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and then ends with carols in celebration of our modern-day observance of the holiday.

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We open the program with the first of Daniel Pinkham’s set of five Nativity Madrigals. 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. 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 talent for both picking and setting these affective texts by the Cambridge poet Norma Farber, herself a classically trained singer. Each of Farber’s texts considers the events of Jesus’s birth from a different perspective. In all five, Pinkham uses the natural cadence of speech in his settings: you will hear faster tempos to illustrate passion—don’t push or pinch or shove for a better view; declarative homophony* for assertive statements—I live here; I have a right to know what’s new; and the use of phrases broken up with long pauses to convey tenderness—just say your name with love when I ask, who are you?—or internal rumination. In the first madrigal, we immediately know the identity of the narrator as an owl in the stable by Dan’s isolation of the word who on a descending glissando* of a fifth; the bird acts as major-domo for those entering the stable to see Jesus. Dan captures musically the visitors’, and by proxy our, 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 visitors.

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 the star that 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 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 implicit in the words of the text.

In the third piece, concerning not the gifts of the wise men to Jesus but His gifts to them, Pinkham’s music captures 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. To illustrate the crabs’ climbing the shale, he sets a stepwise line spanning two and a half octaves, passing from the lowest range of the basses to the highest range of the sopranos. He also provides a wonderful touch in setting the phrase 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 better hear the distant news. In the final poem, Pinkham captures musically the letdown that follows the Christmas euphoria as Farber describes the departure of the various visitors. Pinkham’s harmonies and rhythms then 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 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 within the choral repertory.

Both the Siegfried and the Burhans have texts pertaining to Mary. Kevin Siegfried, a faculty member of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee here in Boston, set the oft-used medieval paean to the Virgin, There is no rose. Like many before him, most notably Britten in his Ceremony of Carols, he used the strophic text to create verses very similar to each other. In Siegfried’s case, they feature minor rhythmic changes to the very irregular rhythmic structure. Despite that irregularity, however, the ebb and flow of each line creates a wonderful sense of rocking that calls to mind Mary rocking her baby. Caleb Burhans, a resident of New York City, created a mesmerizing setting of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of social justice recited to her cousin Elizabeth during her pregnancy. He achieves this hypnotic effect by using a very simple accompaniment of arpeggiated* chords in which often only one note of the chord will change at a time, resulting in incremental changes in the harmony. (This listener was not surprised to learn that another one of Burhans’ works was performed at that vanguard of minimalism Steve Reich’s 70th birthday celebration.) Burhans often uses one of the women’s three parts alone to reflect the solitary speaker, but he does allow all the voices to work together for dramatic and descriptive effect. Thus, the initial solo line My soul doth magnify the Lord becomes a duet to represent the word magnify. In the phrase for he that is mighty hath magnified me, Burhans repeats the initially low alto line and expands it by then having the three parts sing it in a very high tessitura.* In other places he will have one voice with the text on a melodic line, while the other voices create atmosphere by truncating parts of it or having them sing glissandos* down various intervals. The minor tonality* of the accompaniment and melody give way to a glorious major tonality in his setting of the Doxology* to end the piece.

Two other works on tonight’s program are original works with no preceding carol melody. Charles Ives, who lived in Hartford and held a day job selling insurance, wrote A Christmas Carol in an uncharacteristically tonal format; most of his other compositions were extremely atonal long before atonality* became a common compositional strategy. The 6/8 meter, common in lullabies—think of Brahms’s familiar one—underscores God’s presence on Christmas day as an infant. Ives gives his piece a strophic form like the poem it sets, and the only dissonance within the entire piece emphasizes the baby’s tragic end necessitating his birth.

We are extremely lucky to have Terry Halco as the accompanist for Musica Sacra. Aside from being an accomplished keyboard player, he has also written some wonderful music, a piece of which we perform this evening: Christmas Eve. The tonal opening describing the snowy evening includes atmospheric music that evokes footsteps by interspersing short note values with pauses. This comforting tonality gives way to a section that becomes increasingly dissonant, however: first as the bitter cold is described, and then with the revelation of its effect on the homeless and the lost; Halco depicts this last word with melismas* that intertwine among the voices as though trying to find their way in vain. As the poem alludes to the relative comfort of the dead and the rich, the music works its way back to reprising the opening material in reference to the presence of Jesus and his mother, such that one thinks it will end with this comforting image. But, as two of the homeless and lost, they lie shivering, a word Halco sets apart and expresses with evocative music. Unlike the poem, however, in which they remain in that state in a stall, Halco uses the setting of this final phrase to allow the harmony to migrate from its predominant key of A flat major to a transcendent B flat major final chord; being a whole step higher than the rest of the piece, this might refer to Jesus’ ultimate resurrection and its ability to grant the same for those who believe in him.

Also present on tonight’s program are settings of traditional carols by contemporary composers, one such being Away in a manger. Many of us know three melodies to this carol; all were composed by nineteenth-century Americans, although the melody used by Ola Gjeilo was the work of an Irish immigrant. William Kirkpatrick, a devout Methodist, participated in the camp meetings that characterized the first Great Awakening in America. He published over one hundred major works in addition to hymns and seasonal anthems. Gjeilo, who emigrated from Finland to study at Juilliard, may have chosen this particular melody as an immigrant himself. In any event it is a wonderfully tranquil setting for solo voice and wordless vocal accompaniment. As with Burhans’s work, the harmonies shift incrementally through the predominant practice of one voice moving at a time. Because the voices sing together, however, the moving voices result in shifting clusters of sound reminiscent of those in the setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by the Swedish composer Jan Sandström, a work Musica Sacra has performed a few times over the years. Only in the third and final verse does Gjeilo change the texture; his use of the sopranos singing the melody without any accompaniment alludes to the narration changing from the description of the birth to the personal prayer of the narrator on behalf of all of us.

Channing Lefebvre, originally from Baltimore, served as music director and organist at Trinity Church Wall Street, in New York City and directed choruses throughout the metropolitan area. He set the Cornish carol Holy Day Holly Carol with music as jolly as the melody. The first three stanzas showcase the melody—first in solo voice, then in homophony* and then in the tenor voice with others accompanying. In the final verse, however, Lefebvre tosses each of the four individual phrases of the stanza among the voices, resulting in a dense counterpoint.*

James McKelvy did a fun take on the Welsh carol Deck the halls by putting it in a 7/8 meter, turning a staid 4/4 meter into an uneven rhythm of groupings of 2 and 3. The irregularity is further accentuated by his sometimes creating rhythmic groupings of 2+2+3 and sometimes of 3+2+2.

Aside from works newly composed or arranged by Americans, we also include selections from the trove of American music from the traditions of the folk song, both African and Appalachian, and of shape note singing. There are three Negro spirituals on tonight’s program. Willis Laurence James, a graduate of Morehouse College, taught and directed the glee club at Spellman College for over 30 years. However, it was at his first teaching job in Louisiana that he started to collect folk songs with a focus on those sung around the levees of the Mississippi River; one might presume that Oh, Po’ Little Jesus was one of these. His extensive knowledge of the spiritual led him to lecture at the Newport Jazz Festival and also at Tanglewood. Jay Rogers, an alumnus of Harvard College and of Musica Sacra, set Rise Up Shepherd and Follow. And H.T. Burleigh, a renowned baritone of his time, was the first Black composer to arrange spirituals in the style of classical Western music, bringing them into the Western compositional canon.** You can hear this in our selection of Behold that star; in addition to the orchestration for organ, he used no transliterations of black dialect. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh attended the National Conservatory of Music in New York City on a scholarship arranged by the mother of composer Edward McDowell. To make ends meet he also worked as a janitor at the conservatory, singing while he worked; when Antonín Dvořák, the conservatory’s director, first heard him, he pronounced spirituals to be the future of American classical music, and subsequently used them in his New World Symphony.

A word about the use of Black dialect in tonight’s program. André Thomas, the emeritus director of choral activities at Florida State University and a diligent scholar of the use of language in the spiritual, came full circle from having rejected the transliterations of dialect to embracing them. In his 2007 book, Way over in Beulah lan’: understanding and performing the Negro Spiritual, he likens use of dialect in spirituals to the use of German Latin in the performance of Mozart masses, making the point that just as Mozart envisioned them performed that way, so should we hear spirituals in their original language. His reasoning is shared by Anton Armstrong, long the director of St. Olaf’s Choir: “we have to recognize that certain sounds common in the English language are absent in many of the African dialects. This is especially true in the dialects of the West African tribes from which many of the slaves were drawn and brought to this country.” Both Armstrong and Thomas recommend using the dialect as transliterated by the composer, as well as leaving off final “r”in words ending in “er”; changing initial “th” sounds to “d”; and changing the ending “ing” to “in’.”

John Jacob Niles transcribed Appalachian folk tunes from an early age, preceding and greatly influencing the American folk music revival championed by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie 20 years later. While Niles is known to many choral aficionados for his arrangement of Appalachian folk music in general and I wonder as I wander specifically, Salli Terri is less well known. A solo singer who also sang and toured with the Roger Wagner Chorale, she had an appreciation for all music, as evidenced by her remarks in a newspaper interview:

I don’t like words or phrases like “longhair” or “the classics” or “pops” or “easy listening” … they are “dividing lines”; words which reinforce and perpetuate outmoded narrow prejudices instead of sweeping them aside. To me, the whole world of music is so wide and deep and exciting that there just never will be enough hours in a day or days in a week to let me hear and sing and soak up all the marvelous things available…

Certainly she bequeathed us a gem in her arrangement of the Appalachian carol Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. She treats the melody sometimes as a solo voice with unvoiced choral accompaniment, sometimes as treble voices accompanied by the lower parts, and sometimes as male voices in a lower register. This treatment along with her distinctive and lovely harmonic accompaniment to this strophic piece keep it consistently indrawing and affective.

We include two examples of shape note singing, so known because of the different shapes given to notes on the staff to facilitate sight-reading by the singer. Perhaps the best-known composer in this genre is William Billings of colonial Boston, whose harmonies sound open and hollow from the lack of thirds in many of the chords. From the 19th century on, however, shape-note music flourished particularly in the South. Many shape note groups gather today to sing music from tunebooks such as The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, as well as modern-day compositions in that style. We perform Sherburne tonight as it would be done in those circles, by singing through the piece first in solfege* “on the shapes” and then with the words. Sometimes the authorship of the hymn is unknown, but in these two that is not the case. In fact, Lowry also wrote the well-known hymn tune Shall we gather at the river.

I hope that tonight’s concert has given you a taste of the variety among our streams of American musical traditions. Through it we celebrate not only the holiday season, but also the rich diversity within our country.

© 2022 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.