The Christmas Story in Carols

Four centuries of European choral music celebrating the season

The Christmas Story in Carols and Poems

Get in the holiday spirit!

There will be carols—familiar and unfamiliar—as well as classic carols and motets. From Victoria’s O magnum mysterium to Guerrero’s vibrant Villancico los reyes; from the Renaissance era Guillaume Costeley’s Sus debout, gentilz pasteurs to Adolphe Adam’s O Holy Night; from Schütz’s Deutches Magnificat SWV 426 to Franz Gruber’s Silent Night; and from Robert Parsons’s Ave Maria to the haunting Gaelic carol Tàladh Chrìosda.

You’ll also hear carols from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, and Sweden, as well as the popular Ukrainian Carol of the Bells. The 7:00 PM start time allows families to share this treat with their children, and you can catch it live in the concert hall or streaming in your living room.

Full Program

Reading: For so the children come, read by Ian McGullam Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876-1978)
Verbum caro factum est Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), Germany
Ave Maria Robert Parsons (1535-c.1572), England
Ecce concipies Jacob Handl (1550-1591), Slovenia
Deutches Magnificat SWV 426 Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Germany
O magnum mysterium Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1548-c.1611), Spain
Il est né le divin enfant arr. John Rutter, English (b.1945), French Traditional
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Lisa Cacciabaudo, Soprano
Mackenzie Stratton, Alto
Brian Middleton, Tenor
Ian McGullam, Bass
Reading: ‘Get up!’ Said Mary, read by Lynn Courtney Norma Holzmann Farber (1909-1984)
O Holy Night Adolph Adam (1803-1856), arr. Phillip Le Bas, France
Taladh Chriosda arr. Mark Sirett (b.1952), Scottish Gaelic Traditional
Lulajże Jezuniu
Chase Macpherson, Soprano
Myfanwy Callahan, Soprano
arr. Paul Brandvik (b.1937), Poland
Sus, debout gentilz pasteurs Guillaume Costeley (c.1530-1606), France
Ab Oriente venerunt magi Jacob Handl (1550-1591), Slovenia
Los Reyes Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), Spain
Torches arr. Jean Joubert (1927-2019), Galician Traditional
Les bèsties al naixement arr. Xavier Sans (b.1962), Catalonian Traditional
Reading: The Oxen, read by Mary Beekman Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Silent Night Franz Gruber (1787-1863), arr. Dan Forrest (b.1978), Austria
Meklētāja ceļš arr. Andrejs Jansons (b.1938), Latvian Traditional
Ai, nama māmiņa arr. Andrejs Jansons, Latvian Traditional
Carol of the Bells Mykola Leontovich (1877-1923), arr. Peter Wilhousky (1902-1978), Ukraine

Covid-19 Protocols

Masks for audience members are now optional. If socially distanced seating is preferred, please reach out to us directly at info@musicasacra.org.

Venue & Parking

Unless otherwise noted, all performances will take place at:

  • First Church Congregational (on Cambridge Common)
  • 11 Garden Street
  • Cambridge, MA

Seating Chart

Seating Chart for First Church Congregational

Parking

For our Harvard Square performances at First Church Congregational, Musica Sacra provides free parking for all subscribers, and discounted parking for single-ticket holders. The parking lot is University Place Garage, the entrance of which is at 79 University Road. The entrance will be on your RIGHT.

The walk from the covered garage to First Church is approximately 0.4 miles. Please be sure to bring your parking ticket with you to the concert to receive a parking voucher.

  • Map of Parking Garage location, with walking directions to First Church Congregational. (You will need to turn down University Road to enter the garage).

Public Transportation

Bus and subway transportation options are conveniently located within a five-minute walk at the MBTA Harvard Square Red Line subway and bus station.

Accessibility

This facility is wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchair access is located at the side entrance, around and to the right of the main church doors on Garden Street.

Large-print programs are available upon request. Please call the Musica Sacra office at least 3 days in advance of performance and let us know how many large-print programs you will need. Our telephone number is (617) 349 - 3400.

Purchase Tickets

Streaming Tickets

We are offering live streaming of our performances for audience members who wish to view our concert virtually. You will receive a separate email with details for how to connect to the live stream. Live stream tickets are "pay-what-you-can." Please select the ticket price that feels appropriate for you.

In-person Tickets

Ticket sales for this performance have closed.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Welcome to Musica Sacra’s holiday concert of four and a half centuries of music from Europe! While some of our selections are motets employing texts taken directly from the Bible, we also include a number of carols using secular texts that would have been sung originally outside of the context of a religious service. And while some of them will probably be new to you, others will be familiar, even though the arrangements of them may not be. Our first four motets concern the events leading up to the birth of Jesus in settings of passages from the Gospels of John and Luke. Hassler uses verse 14 from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The setting for six voices allows him to state the first phrase first by the upper three voices and then the lower ones in exact imitation before combining them to have the phrase repeated a third time with all six voices. He then repeats this opening in its entirety. One could construe this to signify that the news of the word being made flesh is traveling far and wide until it is incontrovertible. In the second section Hassler again uses imitation but adds a voice to the texture to make it richer. He begins the final section with the first truly homophonic* texture to announce that the new entity is full of grace and favor, thereby drawing attention to the statement. After another imitative section, Hassler repeats this final setting once more to conclude the motet.

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Handl, also known as Jacob Gallus, sets Ecce concipies, Gabriel’s words informing Mary of her role in Jesus’s birth, for four voices; he begins the work with a duet between soprano and tenor, imitated in the very next beat by the alto and bass. I love that Handl introduces a homophonic* texture for the angel’s declaration that his name shall be called Jesus and even more so that he repeats the name Jesus in a longer note value. To me this suggests that the first use of the name is part of the narrative, while the second carries all the mystical and monumental implications associated with a god that was supposed to come down to earth to find us wanting and punish us but came instead as a helpless baby. Handl repeats the next phrase twice as well, this time with the second iteration in a higher register, to illustrate the phrase most high, and then, like many composers of his era, changes the rhythm from duple to triple; this triple rhythm alludes to the triune nature of the Christian God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The final duple section allows Handl to underscore the phrase his reign shall never cease through the continuation of a mostly homophonic* texture and a final statement of the phrase in longer note values.

There are many, many settings of Ave Maria throughout the history of Christian music, although most of them continue beyond Gabriel’s greeting to Mary to ask her to intercede with Jesus on behalf of the supplicant. But because the prayer begins with the angel’s salutation, I include it in many of our holiday concerts, as well as the Magnificat, Mary’s response to this news. This motet, by the Tudor composer Robert Parsons, is one of my many favorites(!). Parsons omits the prayer for mercy, so his text contains only the Angel’s salutation. He opens the piece with the tenors alone singing the complete phrase Ave Maria before the other voices take it up in imitation; the solo opening represents to me the angel himself speaking to the Virgin. The piece then proceeds with the lower four voices in contrapuntal* imitation while the top line iterates each phrase of the salutation in long note values. Each of these phrases rises a step up from its predecessor until the sopranos have raised their tone up stepwise by a sixth. This unites the opening of the work, while also increasing the intensity of the Angel’s greeting. In the middle section, in which Gabriel announces the reason for Mary’s exalted status, Parsons integrates the sopranos into the counterpoint* of the other voices to enrich the variety within the composition. He finishes with to my mind one of the most sublime Amens in choral music: the long melismas* on the first syllable of the word interweaving among the parts make it feel very expansive.

As with the Ave Maria, many versions of the Magnificat, Mary’s response to Gabriel’s prediction that she will bear the Son of God, exist. In this case, it has more to do with the fact that the Magnificat ends the service of Vespers, the last service of the day in Latin liturgy. Schütz himself wrote six settings, one in Latin and five in German, although two of those five have been lost. We have performed the German setting for double chorus, one of the very last pieces Schütz wrote, a few times during my tenure at Musica Sacra, but our reduced forces recommended this one for four parts, published in 1657 as one of his Twelve Religious Songs. Scored for only four voices, the texture perforce has a much less dense texture than his later one, but he still manages to get in lovely word painting, as well as a variety of choral textures: homophony*, homophony with one voice in juxtaposition, counterpoint* among all four voices, and imitative duets of duets between 2 voices. You can hear the tenor voice in the opening phrase anticipating the homophony* in the other three voices; its rising fourth iterated again a step higher represents Schütz’s musical illustration of magnified. As with his double chorus opus, he uses successively higher iterations to illustrate he hath raised before dropping the voices to a lower tessitura* to musically describe the weak. His Doxology alternates in quick succession duple and triple meters, the latter perhaps expressing joy at the idea of God’s favor for all the future, and in his Amen he allows the singers a thick imitative contrapuntal* freedom in shorter note values to express the reaction of delight in this promise.

The pieces in the second section of our concert concern the birth of Jesus. We juxtapose Victoria’s setting of O magnum mysterium with Rutter’s arrangement of the French carol Il est né, le divin enfant. Where Victoria’s text explores the mystical miracle of Christ born, not as a judge, but as an infant lying in a manger among the beasts in a stable, the carol from the region of Lorraine emphasizes the joy felt throughout the ages by all who celebrate the miracle of this birth. The Swedish composer Jan Sandström echoes Victoria’s impression of the birth in his wonderful accompaniment to Prætorius’s Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, wherein the text uses the metaphor of a rose blooming in winter to describe the miracle of Jesus’s birth. The chorus intones the various pitches within the chorale, building the chord from the bottom of the choral tessitura* to the top as accompaniment to Prætorius’s chorale; this results in dense clusters of sound that musically enshroud it, forming a musical metaphor for the mystery of Christ’s birth. The stasis created by this setting gives me a profound sense of peace.

I would imagine Adolphe Adam’s O holy night needs no introduction, since there are numerous interpretations by singers both classical and popular. This arrangement mostly retains the original accompaniment while enlarging the vocal texture beyond the original solo voice to first two and then four voices. The French version, first heard in 1847, was so popular that the Transcendentalist John Dwight provided an English text requiring minimal melodic alteration in 1855. The line alluding to breaking the chains of those who are our brother made this carol very popular with abolitionists in America, perhaps the reason for the translation in the first place.

The next two carols in our program are probably much less familiar, since one comes from the Scottish Isles and the other from Poland. Both represent lullabies their respective poet imagines Mary to have sung to her child as she rocks him to sleep, and both pieces use a triple meter to convey the gentle rocking of a mother as she holds her infant. We are very fortunate to be able to include the violin solo accompanying the first one due to the kindness of Isaiah Schrader.

In the third section of our program, the works concern the visitations to the stable by the shepherds and the magi. In the French carol we hear the shepherds urging each other to rise to go and see the son of God lying in a manger. This exhortation acts to unify the work by recurring periodically through the music. In the next two pieces, the composers describe the arrival of the wise men. Where Handl directly quotes the scripture from Matthew, Guerrero’s text compares the magi’s search for the baby to Christ’s search for sinners. I love the joyous energy of Guerrero’s composition and its sudden syncopations*. Two Spanish carols broaden this visitation to all creatures. The first, arranged by John Joubert, a Canadian composer, comes from Galicia. The underlying chordal accompaniment of two forte* alternating chords in the piano that Joubert uses for the first and last stanza underscores the excitement, urgency, and effort of those exhorting all to run to the stable, while those chords transmute to a piano* rocking motif in the lower voices to allude to Mary’s lullaby comprising the second verse. The second carol, well known in Catalonia and new to me, comes as a recommendation from our Catalonian tenor, Victor Quintas. It describes the animals coming to visit the stable. The lively tempo conveys the joy of Christ’s birth while also alluding to the speed of the rabbit and the frog. In the case of the latter, the syllable in the choral accompaniment to the bass voice describing the frog’s approach conveys to me the squishy sound a frog hopping newly out of the water might make. For the fourth stanza, Sans slows the tempo to convey the lumbering slow movement of the ox in comparison to those mentioned before.

Our final four carols represent celebrations of the Christmas holiday. There is hardly any one unfamiliar with Silent Night, and the arranger Dan Forrest’s choral arrangement does not stray very far from Gruber’s original harmonization of it. Interestingly, guitar provided the original accompaniment to the carol, a poem inspired by the Napoleonic Wars, because the organ where Gruber was music director was thought to have perhaps been flooded. The emphasis on the night’s silence in all three stanzas is not surprising in a poem written right after a war, and certainly that feeling resonated with the German officer, a tenor in the Berlin Opera, who, by singing it in both languages on Christmas Eve, inspired English and German troops to sing it together during the 1914 Christmas Day Truce along the Western Front in World War I. Forrest’s accompaniment takes this well-known carol to a new and transcendent place. The persistent presence of the piano’s accompaniment of a descending sequence of scales rising to a sixth high in the treble* register create a blissful sense of tranquility while alluding simultaneously to God’s descent from Heaven to earth; the radiant beaming of love’s pure light; and an aural picture of snow falling gently on a windless night.

The two Latvian carols that follow represent, respectively, the sacred celebration of Christmas and its more secular traditions. In the first, the narrator observes a rosy dawn and likens it to the allusion of Christ as the Christmas Rose. A faster tempo underscores this observation, and then, as the narration goes on to use the rose as a metaphor for the blooming of faith, the changing tonality from minor to major and an even faster irregular 5/8 meter turns the carol into a joyous celebration. The second carol would have been sung by mummers. As in the English tradition they would go singing from door to door, but rather than libation they would be given meat, wool socks, and wool mittens; this last was to ensure that the sheep would produce a large amount of wool. They would also wear symbolic headgear such as cabbages and grain in perpetuation of ancient fertility rites. Part of the tradition also included ‘stealing’ something when leaving the house, as referred to in the second stanza. The rhythmic drone* in the lower voices to accompany the melody in the sopranos emphasizes the jolly and festive nature of this carol. We end our concert with Leontovich’s Carol of the Bells, a carol probably known to many of you, and one we perform to express solidarity with Ukraine.

As evidenced by the wonderful variety of works in tonight’s program, the tradition of carols celebrating the birth of Jesus, both sacred and secular, is a rich and fertile one. Throughout history Christians have engaged in a dialogue with God and professed their faith through the art of music. We are pleased to sample some of the many delights of this dialogue in tonight’s concert, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. ▣

© 2023 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.