This week’s posting appears on December 6, which happens to be my birthday, so a few observations about music loosely associated with that thought might be in order. December 6 also carries the significance of being St Nicholas’ Day. St Nicholas, the patron saint of choristers, was the devout Christian Bishop of Myra who, so legend records, was revered for his care of the poor and his love for the young; he was also the inspiration for the tradition of Father Christmas. He died on December 6, AD 343, and his humility is still commemorated each year in cathedrals during the Ceremony of the Boy Bishop. The ceremony neatly embodies the spirit of one sentence in the Magnificat, a component of the daily Evensong Service:
He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.
As the choir sings these words, a boy chorister, replete with mitre and cope, replaces the attendant bishop, taking his place on the ecclesiastical throne.
In 1948, Benjamin Britten recorded the life of the holy man in his cantata St Nicolas (Naxos 8.557203), which was his first large-scale work to combine amateur resources with professional anchors. In 1976, Britten also contributed to the celebrations marking the 75th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002) with A Birthday Hansel (Naxos 8.572706), seven songs with harp accompaniment and a Scottish slant to reflect her family’s roots. A hansel is an Old English wish for good luck.
Previous monarchs have been similarly presented with musical gifts by elite composers. Handel‘s Eternal Source of Light Divine was an Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665-1714), while Henry Purcell was commissioned by King William III of England (1650-1702) to write six birthday odes for his wife, Queen Mary II (1662-94), the most famous being the last in the set, Come Ye Sons of Art.
Charles Ives‘ Washington’s Birthday (Naxos 8.559087) is a slightly less chirpy affair than Purcell‘s toe-tapping hurrah. Quite what the first President of the United States would have made of it is probably not difficult to guess, though good manners might have allowed him an exceptional white lie in response to its enigmatic layout. An extended, impressionistic and discordant opening section does eventually melt into a barn dance pastiche, but then vanishes with the strains of Good Night, Ladies hanging in the air. The piece itself is currently celebrating an anniversary, having been published exactly 100 years ago.
Naxos is pleased to send greetings to Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer who celebrates his 58th birthday today. Now resident in the US state of Michigan and describing himself as “100% American, 100% Chinese”, Sheng’s teenage years were lived out amid the hardships of China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, initiated in 1966 by Mao Zedong.
He was sent away from home for re-education like most of his countrymen, but he at least avoided a farmer’s life and benefited from the musical protectionism of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (often referred to as Madame Mao), ending up as a pianist in a music and dance hall in the far-off province of Qinghai. “The Cultural Revolution taught me many things,” he once told me. “Most importantly, things like being self-taught, how to learn from what you have.”
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Sheng made his way to New York, via the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, to consolidate his studies. That unpleasant episode in his life, however, is captured in H’un: In memoriam 1966–1976, an orchestral work described by the composer as “an angry and grieving cry of historical experience,” and by The New York Times as a “searing portrait of the Cultural Revolution in China…deeply affecting.” If you’re unfamiliar with Sheng’s immediately captivating style, you can check it out on The Phoenix (Naxos American Classics 8.559610).
Finally, let’s hear it for sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill who penned a ditty in the mid-nineteenth century that could be easily grasped by their kindergarten students:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children.
Good morning to all.
The accompanying melody was so simple and catchy that it quickly became adapted to accommodate different words, those of Happy Birthday To You, eventually pitching the sisters into an international fame that they would never live to enjoy, nor the copyright income.