Christmas may be all wrapped up for another year in many households, but in some traditions people are about to welcome what is known as Little Christmas, namely the Christian observation of the visit of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, or Three Kings to the new-born baby Jesus, following a guiding star. It’s called the feast of the Epiphany. So, for this week’s blog we’ll dip into the catalogue and select examples of how the Epiphany has been immortalised in music.
We start with The Three Kings by Peter Cornelius. The piece is particularly well known on the English choral scene, but Cornelius was actually a German composer. It’s the third song in a cycle for voice and piano titled Weihnachstlieder (Christmas Carols). Cornelius was friends with Liszt, who suggested that he add the Lutheran chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star) as the accompaniment to the melody. The result is a ravishing polyphonic setting that grows from a tender beginning to a poignant emotional climax. Here it is in an arrangement for brass septet, performed by the London-based brass ensemble Septura.
The Three Kings (8.573719)
There’s a certain parallel with our next item, in that the music is similarly built around a central chorale and is itself the centrepiece of Richard Danielpour’s orchestral work The Awakened Heart. It’s a kaleidoscopic three-movement piece that ranges from darkness and passion through that stately chorale to an exuberant and breathless conclusion. Danielpour calls the second movement “a meditation” and identifies it as “the heart of the piece and also its turning point, emotionally and dramatically,” emulating the emotional shift experienced when someone says they are ‘having an epiphany’. Titled Epiphany, the composer juxtaposes the hymn-like melody with rhapsodic decorations and other ideas. It’s performed here by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Next to the Wise Men’s pop-up appearance in the Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). Sadly, a substantial part of Schütz’s output remained unpublished owing to the intervention of war and resultant financial hardship. Of this unpublished music, much has been lost, the most significant part of it owing to fires in Dresden and Copenhagen in the century after Schütz’s death. One can only lament the loss of such a substantial body of music, coming as it did from the pen of the first German composer of international repute.
In spite of the fact that Schütz was keen to have the bulk of his music published, the case of The Christmas Story is different. Schütz allowed only the part for the Evangelist to be made available for sale. The others were available only for hire. It seems that only musicians of a certain standard were allowed to hire these movements. As Schütz himself put it: “Other than in well-appointed royal chapels, this music cannot be adequately performed.” So, what of those musicians who did not make the grade? How were they to perform this 17th-cenury masterwork? For those unfortunates, the advice was to intersperse the Evangelist’s recitatives with any music that they saw fit.
We, however, can hear Schütz’s original music for the Wise Men, introduced by violins with the low tessitura of the dulcian (a Renaissance double-reed woodwind instrument) emphasising their bluff sagacity. It’s performed by members of the Oxford Camerata, conducted by Jeremy Summerly.
The Christmas Story (8.553514)
Our next, very short piece was created at the other end of the spectrum of exclusivity. It’s the Introit for The Season of Epiphany by the American composer Julian Wachner, who himself explains the background to the work as follows:
“The Introit for The Season of Epiphany from 1992 is an example of the occasional music I was writing on a weekly schedule for Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Sensing I lacked discipline the Dean of the Chapel, the Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, set as part of my duties as Music Director the regular composition of music for service use. This was the greatest gift I ever received, for it provided me with a veritable laboratory for compositional experimentation with a relatively willing band of student accomplices, both vocal and instrumental. This requirement also provided me the opportunity to receive weekly criticism and commentary from the listening congregation and radio audience, the majority of whom were non-musicians, but music lovers. I learned my craft, then, very publicly with a few disasters along the way, but also managed to create a number of works that still remain in my catalogue and enjoy current performances.”
The introit is performed here by the Elora Festival Singers, conducted by Noel Edison.
The Introit for The Season of Epiphany (8.559607)
Another contemporary American composer, Kenneth Fuchs, wrote his song cycle Poems of Life for countertenor and orchestra in 2017. It sets to music a group of poems by Judith G. Wolf. The final epilogue is titled Conversation; Epiphany, the latter poem starting with the words ‘I found God’ and going on to describe the amazing, comforting experience that ensued. Our performance is by soloist Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta; it formed part of the programme on a release that won the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium.
Conversation; Epiphany. (8.559824)
Our next piece lets your imagination run rather free. It’s the first movement from Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings. Scored as a ballet, it was the last score to emerge from Ellington’s prolific pen. Left unfinished at his death, the work was completed by Ellington’s son, Mercer, who noted:
“My father first intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King, but then decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. The opening movement represents Balthazar, the black king of the Magi. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings my father saw in the Catedral del Mar in Barcelona.”
Balthazar’s camel certainly sounds to be a quite a nimble beast, with the music driven forward here by conductor JoAnn Falletta again, this time directing the Buffalo Philarmonic Orchestra.
King of the Magi (8.559737)
Coming full circle to where we started with the chorale in Peter Cornelius’ The Three Kings, we’ll end with J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude for organ on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star), performed by Felix Friedrich.
How brightly shines the morning star (C51063)