It will soon be the season of Christmas carol services, managed somehow or other this year by technical wizardry in defiance of Covid-19. It set me thinking not only about the traditional carols I grew up with, but also the plentiful variety of alternative music that has been written over the centuries to mark the spirit of the occasion. This week’s blog, then, will give the nod to past and present styles of Christmas compositions in a selection that might turn up old favourites and new experiences as they focus on those core scenes of the Christmas Story.
We begin with the star that appeared as a beacon for the Three Wise Men as they journeyed to Jerusalem carrying their prophecy to King Herod that a new ruler was soon to be born. The French opera composer Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) wrote O Holy Night in 1847. Like the stars it describes, the work’s popularity has never faded. We can hear it in an arrangement for choir and organ performed by the Elora Singers. Here’s the text of the first verse, sung in a translation by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), an American Unitarian minister who enjoyed a parallel career as a music journalist and influential music critic.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
O Holy Night (8.573421)
Written in 2000, the radiance in Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque is captured by a simplicity in approach and shimmering harmonies that glow like the gold and light described in the poem. The original English text was written by Edward Esch (b. 1970) and translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri (b. 1965):
calida gravisque warm and heavy
pura velut aurum as pure gold,
et canunt angeli and the angels sing softly
molliter modo natum. To the newborn babe.
Lux aurumque (8.574179)
Turning to the tableau of the three Kings’ arrival at the nativity scene, one song that often appears in carol services is Die Könige (The Kings) by the German composer Peter Cornelius (1824-1874). Cornelius concentrated wholly on vocal music, apart from some early instrumental works, and he remained under the spell of personalities such as Liszt and Wagner throughout his life, despite developing an individual style. His independence is evidenced especially in his songs, which were mostly composed to his own texts. As a poet-musician, his literary output comprises more than 700 poems, three librettos, and numerous essays and translations. Liszt gave Cornelius advice and help; through him he got to know the works of Berlioz and Wagner, and later the composers themselves.
Anyone familiar with the Die Könige heard at carol services may be unaware that it is in fact the second version of the song. The original was conceived as a slow march. Here it is:
Die Könige (1) (8.572859)
For the revised version, Cornelius took up a suggestion made by Liszt and underlaid the text with the chorale melody Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star), which can be heard in the accompaniment:
Die Könige (2) (8.572859)
For my other take on the arrival of the Kings I’ve taken a scene from an opera by the Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) — Amahl and the Night Visitors. It’s reasonable to suggest that no post-war opera has enjoyed exposure comparable to the attention it received as a commission from America’s National Broadcasting Company. The network first televised the opera on Christmas Eve 1951, subsequently broadcasting it every year until 1965.
Menotti’s opera presents Amahl as a disabled boy who has a problem with telling the truth. Hence his mother does not believe him when he tells her of an amazing star that can be seen in the night sky. Later, there’s a knock at the door and his mother tells him to see who it is. Amahl is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings, who announce that they have arrived to give gifts to a wondrous child.
Later that night, being poor and sickened at the thought of her crippled child becoming a beggar, Amahl’s mother attempts to steal some of the gold, but is thwarted by the Kings’ attendant. Upon seeing Amahl’s spirited defence of his mother, and realising her motives for the attempted theft, Melchior says she may keep the gold, as the Holy Child needs no earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom.
Oh woman, you may keep the gold (8.669019)
The mother wishes to send a gift to the Holy Child but has nothing to send; neither does Amahl except his crutch. As he offers it, his leg is suddenly no longer lame, and he joyfully goes with the Kings to see the child and give thanks for being healed.
I walk, mother! (8.669019)
The tableau of the shepherds hearing the news of the birth of Jesus was beautifully and succinctly captured by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) in his oratorio Weinachtshistorie (Christmas Story). Schütz helped to evolve the musical style of the late Renaissance into that of the Early Baroque; this transition is well demonstrated in his Christmas Story, where the Shepherds are placed in their rough-and-ready rustic setting to the accompaniment of a pair of recorders and a dulcian (think bassoon) as they get ready to hasten to Bethlehem.
Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem (8.553514)
The same scene with a slightly more secular edge to it can be heard in Noël: Laissez paistre vos bêtes (Leave your animals to graze), one of the many arrangements of carols penned by the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Here’s a translation of the text:
Leave your animals to graze,
Shepherds over the hills and vales.
Leave your animals to graze
And let us go to sing Noël.
I have heard the nightingale sing
Who sang a song so new,
So high, so fine,
It made my head burst,
So it sang and chattered,
Then took my crook
To go to see Noël.
We ran at great speed
To see our sweet Redeemer
He had, God knows,
Great need of covering.
He lay in the crib
On a pile of hay.
Now let us all pray the King of Kings
That he grants us all a good Noël
From our misdeeds.
Be not mindful
Of our sins and pardon us
And put us in his glory
To reign for ever.
Noël: Laissez paistre vos bêtes (8.554514)
As for the angels who made their annunciation to the shepherds that something of huge joy was on their horizon, I myself never tire of hearing Handel’s portrayal of the event in Messiah. The fluttering violins in the recitative There were shepherds abiding in the field conjure the flapping of angels’ wings, capped by their final shake of a tail, so to speak, at the end of the ensuing chorus, Glory to God.
There were shepherds abiding in the field (8.550667-68)
Glory to God (8.550667-68)
Centuries later, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) seemed to have the same image in mind when he wrote Les anges for organ. It’s the shortest of the 9 movements that make up his La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour), a large-scale work that established Messiaen as a visionary composer for the organ. Messiaen uses keyboards only (no deep pedal notes) to portray the appearance of the angels. The music’s brightness and rhythmic drive imaginatively convey the beating wings of the heavenly host, which descends, pauses in homage, and then ascends — circling ever higher until out of sight.
Les anges (8.573332)
In terms of expressing a general joy engendered by the Christmas Story, pairing a mediaeval carol with music from the 18th century certainly seems to suggest that people were gradually learning to be much more comfortable with letting their hair down. Dating from the 15th century, the English carol Be merry be merry rejects specific subject matter in favour of allusions to the many glories of Christian life as a means to universal happiness.
Be merry be merry (8.550751)
The opening of J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio provides contrast. Written for the Christmas season of 1743, it belongs firmly among his timeless large-scale compositions. Here’s a translation of the text of the opening chorus Jauchzet, frohlocket! :
Rejoice, exult! Up, praise these days!
Extol what the Most High has done this day!
Cease to be fearful, banish weeping,
Sing out in rejoicing and jubilation!
Serve the Most High with splendid choirs;
Let us worship the name of the Lord!
Jauchzet, frohlocket! (8.574001-02)
We’ll conclude with two images of the Christmas Tree. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composed his Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) suite between 1874 and 1876, dedicating the twelve-piece set to his grandchild, Daniela von Bulow. He published the suite in 1882 in two versions, one for solo piano and one for piano four hands. The fifth movement, Lighting the Tree, captures a child’s excitement at the moment.
Lighting the Tree (8.553461)
For many, however, it’s the gifts that lie under the Christmas Tree that provide the major seasonal excitement, well expressed in Sasha Johnson Manning’s The Present Song with lyrics by Carol Ann Duffy, who was the UK’s Poet Laureate from 2009 until 2019.
The Present Song (8.572469)