• Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 6

    The first line sung in the opening chorus of Part 6 reminds us that the character of Christmas is far from that of a Hallmark greeting card. “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” can be translated “Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort with rage.” In his book, Bach’s Oratorios, which includes a complete English translation of the texts to all of Bach’s oratorios and Passions, Michael Marissen comments in a footnote about the adjective stolzen: While Stolz primarily means “proud” in a more dignified sense, it is also an archaic synonym for übermutig, in the sense of “insolent” or “cocky.” In this way the word Stolz has the same double…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 5

    The fifth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written to be sung on the Sunday following New Year’s Day. It opens with a rousing chorus: Let honour to you, God, be sungFor you let praise and thanks be prepared.All the world exalts youBecause our welfare is pleasing to you,Because todayAll our wishes have been achieved,Because your blessing delights us so gloriously. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists,John Eliot Gardiner, director A tenor soloist (Evangelist) then sings a recitative with the biblical account of the arrival of the Magi: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the land of the Jews at the time of King Herod, see, there…

  • Repertoire

    Georg Philipp Telemann
    Der Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem
    “The Shepherds at the Crib of Bethlehem”

    Perhaps because Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel were his contemporaries, Telemann’s Christmas music is pretty much neglected. So almost no one knows this remarkable Christmas oratorio. Composed in 1759, Telemann’s music presents a libretto by poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-1798). To an extent uncommon in Christmas texts set to music, Der Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem stresses the eschatological fulfillment promised by the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph aren’t mentioned, nor are the usual trappings of conventional manger tableaux. Rather — using imagery from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation which promises the redemption and transformation of the whole earth when…

  • Lectures

    Where our carols came from

    While looking on-line for some information about various Christmas carols, I came across an informative series of lectures given by Jeremy Summerly, the Sterndale Bennett Lecturer in Music at the Royal Academy of Music and Visiting Professor of Music History at Gresham College, London, where these lectures were given. The Gresham College website has downloadable video, audio, transcripts, and even Powerpoint files for each of these lectures. Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues with five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from their website. There are currently over 2,000 lectures free to access or download from the…

  • Repertoire

    J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part 3

    Many of the arias, recitatives, and choruses in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are reworkings of movements from two earlier cantatas which Bach composed for civic commemorations. The conventional term for such re-purposing is “parody,” although the word doesn’t suggest sarcasm or lampooning, simply imitation, and often for the best of intentions. The opening chorus of Part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio, written for performance on December 27th, the third Day of Christmas, is one of the most dramatic instances of such parody. The music is lifted from Cantata #214, which Bach composed to celebrate the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony. The text for the opening…

  • Repertoire

    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…

  • Repertoire

    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…

  • Recording reviews

    Recommended recording: Incarnation (The Gabrieli Consort)

    During the twelve days of Christmas, I’ve been recommending recordings of Christmas music. This is the twelfth and last “review,” and I realize that many readers have probably stopped listening to Christmas music by now. But you can still make notes for next year’s listening (and gift-buying). Several days ago, I discussed an album of music by Michael Praetorius and others, a recording that reconstructed what a Christmas-day service at a major church in central Germany around 1620 might have sounded like. Today I’ve got another recording by the Gabrieli Consort, conducted by Paul McCreesh. It’s called Incarnation, and the title of the album is a clue that the program…

  • Recording reviews

    Recommended recording: Cristóbal de Morales Christmas motets

    In the past four years, our choir has been privileged to sing five different pieces by a sadly neglected composer from the Spanish Renaissance, Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553). Born in Seville, Morales was hailed during his lifetime as “la luz de España en la music” (“the light of Spain in music”). He was clearly the most famous Spanish composer before Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) and probably one of the most widely performed composers throughout Christendom in the middle of the sixteenth century. Between 1535-1545, he sang in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. His time in Rome may have some bearing on the fact that his compositional style seems…

  • Recording reviews

    Recommended recording: Make we joy (Holst & Walton)

    While composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is best known for his orchestral suite, The Planets, he also composed quite a bit of choral music, including several hymns. (Three of his compositions or arrangements are in our Hymnal, but the only one we regularly sing is his setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak mid-winter.”) Holst was conducting village choirs and choral societies by the age of eighteen, and during his studies at the Royal College of Music, his teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Hubert Parry (1848-1918), two giants in the Anglican choral tradition. Although he spent six years as a chorister in the Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford…