• Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 2

    The second part of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium focuses on the experience of the shepherds in the Nativity story, so it is fitting that it opens with an instrumental Sinfonia that is decidedly “pastoral,” with its three-quarter time and prominent woodwind parts. That instrumental introduction is followed by a tenor recitative about shepherds and flocks-by-night and a frightening angel with shining glory. The following movement is the chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht, which we sing as the hymn “Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly Light.” Below are images from Bach’s handwritten score for this chorale, as it is performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot…

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    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 1

    Although it is a single work in six related parts, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio could be regarded as a compilation of six separate cantatas. Recognizing the fact that Christmas is not a day, but a twelve-day season, the scheme of the Oratorio appoints Part 1 to be sung on Christmas Day, Part 2 on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th), Part 3 on St. John’s Day (December 27th), Part 4 on the 1st of January to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision (coinciding with New Year), Part 5 sung on the first Sunday after New Year, and Part 6 on January 6 for the Feast of Epiphany. Officially designated Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248, the…

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    Christmas with Ralph Vaughan Williams

    The choral repertoire of Christmas music owes a debt to Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). In our own parish, we often sing “O little town of Bethlehem” to the tune FOREST GREEN, one of many folk tunes that Vaughan Williams adapted for use in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal (read the whole story of that project here). Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford; Owen Rees, conductor In 1912, after Vaughan Williams had completed a period of research for the Folk-Song Society and the editing of The English Hymnal, he composed his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a work for baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra. His engagement with traditional tunes and…

  • Service music

    Christmas Eve
    (December 24, 2019)

    For many years, our Processional hymn on Christmas Eve has been “O come all ye faithful.” During Advent, we have been invoking our Lord to come, and now, as we celebrate his birth we invoke his people to come to worship him.  This hymn is so deeply embedded in the lives of many of us that we probably fail to notice some of its formal elements. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook makes this observation: “The text has two unusual features for such a popular hymn: it is unrhymed and has an irregular meter.” The authorship of the text (originally in Latin) was long debated but most scholars believe it was the…

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    Marc-Antoine Charpentier
    Messe de Minuit

    Composed in 1694, the Midnight Mass for Christmas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704) includes tunes from eleven French carols. Conductor John Bawden explains: In England carols were more often sung than played, but in France noëls figured prominently in the substantial French organ repertoire. The liturgy of Midnight Mass permitted the singing and playing of these Christmas folksongs, and by Charpentier’s time quite complex instrumental arrangements were commonplace. However, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole mass on these songs was completely original. Altogether there are eleven noëls, most of which are dance-like in character, reflecting the carol’s secular origins. In addition to the carol melodies that he adapted to fit various parts of the…

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    Arvo Pärt
    Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen (1988)

    For the past week, I’ve been parcelling out the pieces of a work that should be experienced whole, although in performance and on recordings, some of the movements of Arvo Pärt’s Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen are sometimes extracted and presented without the full context. Before Christmas arrives, I thought I should make easily available on these pages a performance of the entire work. From the Arvo Pärt Centre’s website, here is the “official” summary of the work: Arvo Pärt has assembled these prayers into one comprehensive concert piece based on the German text of the antiphons. The work is composed in rigorous tintinnabulistyle, but each part has its own complete form and…

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    “O Antiphons,” VII
    Arvo Pärt
    O Immanuel

    The final O Antiphon in this week before Christmas is O Emmanuel. In invoking the name which affirms “God with us,” the text summarizes the character of the salvation that comes with that divine presence: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:the hope of the nations and their Saviour:veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.Come and save us, O Lord our God. Arvo Pärt’s setting of this final antiphon is the longest of the seven movements, as it repeats the text three times. The first statement of the texts is a long ascending sequence of chords that builds a sense of…

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    “O Antiphons,” VI
    Arvo Pärt
    O König aller Völker

    The O antiphon for December 22nd reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world is an inescapably political event. It speaks of the coming King of nations as the source of unity, encouraging us to remember that an authentic quest for unity cannot marginalize or relativize the place of Christ as the unifier, as the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Deep dissatisfaction with discord should not be understood in merely psychological or sociological terms. It is a recognition (however faint) of the disordering effects of sin and a longing (however inchoate) for redemption, which will have political consequences. O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,O…

  • Service music

    Fourth Sunday in Advent
    (December 22, 2019)

    The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the account in St. John’s Gospel of the encounter between John the Baptist and the priests and Levites from Jerusalem. Rather than asking him what his goals are, they ask him who he is. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Our processional hymn — “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” — was written in Latin by the French priest and educator Charles Coffin (1676-1749). For a time rector of the University of Paris, Coffin wrote about 100 Latin hymns, in addition to a large amount of Latin poetry. The Hymnal 1940 Companion…

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    Dietrich Buxtehude:
    Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

    On the third Sunday of Advent, our parish sang the hymn, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” The remarkable text and tune behind this hymn have served as the starting point for a number of compositions that I’ve highlighted in the past week or so. Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruf uns die Stimme is the best known of these works. But a much smaller scale cantata by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is also worth repeated listenings. Buxtehude’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BuxWV 100) is in four short movements: a brief introductory instrumental Sinfonia, with four violins and continuo; Verse 1 of the hymn sung by a soprano…