If the challenge behind last week’s 5&1 (life in a mechanised world) was the relative scarcity of music to fit the topic (although perhaps not as rare as some might assume), this week’s is the opposite. Christmas has been inspiring composers to reach new heights for centuries. There’s just too much.
So, I’ve tried to pick out a few items that will be very familiar to choral enthusiasts but less widely known. I can leave you to enjoy the profound wonders of Messiah by Handel and the iconic nine Lessons and Carols from King’s Cambridge for yourselves (although several of these will have undoubtedly appeared in the latter over the years).
Christmas Oratorio: 1:1 Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tage (BWV248)
—Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German) Stephen Layton (conductor), Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The events of that first Christmas were deeply puzzling. I suspect that none of those involved really understood what was going on. Indeed, it would take Jesus’s own mother at least three decades. What those first on the scene would have grasped, however, is the grounds for joy. Joy at the miracle of a new life. That’s a source of wonder every single time, in itself. But 2,000 years ago, it was so much more. This was a miraculous new life who would usher in new life for all, including those not yet alive.
Bach opens his Christmas Oratorio (in fact, his own combination of several cantatas—see 5&1, Part 8 on Advent) with an evocation of the angels calling the shepherds. With rousing drums (anyone who complains about drums in church would need to take the matter up with the great JSB first) and glorious brass. This is eighteenth century music to get people off their backsides and into town to see the newborn.
Incidentally, cast aside images of stables and cowsheds—if you want to know what really happened at his birth, check out this post from my friend Ian Paul, a fascinating NT scholar.
Hodie Christus Natus Est (FP 152)
—François Poulenc (1899-1963, French) John Rutter (conductor), Cambridge Singers
So, you’ve trekked from your sheep paddock into the seething metropolis that wasn’t Bethlehem, and what do you find? What’s the big deal?
This brief burst of unaccompanied choral exuberance from the quirky but brilliant François Poulenc informs us, setting the Latin text of a seasonal Gregorian chant. For this baby is actually a king. No newborns, even royal ones, have much to set them apart from others, regardless of proud parents who insist otherwise. They’re always very needy, with unrestrained combinations of bodily functions to which all but the most parentally biased will go, ‘Ewww’. And I have little doubt that Jesus bar-Joseph was the same. For he was fully human, fully enfleshed. He was one of us.
And yet, he is also the Christ—God’s yearned-for King, for whom all heaven rejoices. And I’m sure this eternal joy will have even some echoes at least of Poulenc’s Alleluia…
O Magnum Mysterium (1994)
—Morten Lauridsen (1943- , American) Nicol Matt (conductor), Chamber Choir of Europe
But that’s just the start. There are depths to the significance of this birth that we will never plumb. And this track takes another Gregorian chant text for Christmas to lead us in meditation on those depths. For it is not just the Christ who has been born, but the Lord: Latin ‘dominum,’ Greek ‘kyrios’ / Hebrew ‘adonai.’ It is the latter which the Old Testament regularly uses as a substitute for Yahweh / YHWH / Jehovah, the revealed name of God, deemed (by tradition but not scriptural warrant) too holy to utter. For yes, this is the claim. Yahweh has been born.
Remember, in the bible, a mystery is not something spooky or scary (necessarily) but something only God knows, and therefore something only God can reveal. Because he’s God, mysteries tend to shock and surprise. So, the fact that animals witness this caper is only the start. A great mystery indeed.
Listen out for Lauridsen’s sublime articulation of the words’ varied emotional force. This birth is far greater than anything the world had seen or ever will see. Yet its joys, that in this setting seem to unfold and escalate organically, would still be pricked by pain, a pain which only a grieving mother could truly know.
Stars ‘Alone in the night’ (2011, text by Sara Teasdale 1884-1933)
—Ēriks Ešenvalds (1977- , Latvian) Voces8
This one isn’t a carol at all, per se. And the fact that the composer and Latvian Baptist seminary graduate uses water-tuned wine glasses to accompany the choir makes this quite unusual! But the very last lines of Sara Teasdale’s gorgeous text tie perfectly into the themes we have considered, not least because the experiences she evokes would have been experienced by all that first Christmas, but with even greater wonder. Those of us who live in or near cities are denied them by pesky light pollution. But this, for me, superbly evokes the true light-bringer, the one (famously described by Graham Kendrick) who with “hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered.”
Legend (‘The Crown of Roses’) (1883)
—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893, Russian) The Queen’s Six
This precious miniature by the great Russian composer gives us further insight into a mother’s concern as she watches her son grow up. The original poem was written by the American Richard Henry Stoddard, translated into Russian in the 1870s, and it was this that caught Tchaikovsky’s imagination. It tells of an imagined incident in Jesus’ childhood, when he is found by a group of children in his garden. They mock him for the roses he cares for and from which he makes garlands. When they decide to make their own crown for him, stripping theirs of petals but leaving the bare thorns, it spoke truer than they could have known.
A Ceremony of Carols (Op. 28, 1942)
—Benjamin Britten (1906-1976, English) David Hill (conductor), Westminster Cathedral Choir
Several months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Britten and his partner Peter Pears left Britten for the United States. They were committed pacifists and could see the storm clouds of war building. But on the back of English incomprehension and hostile reviews of his music, they were encouraged by the American reception their friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had enjoyed. Once war broke out, the UK embassy in Washington urged them to remain as ‘artistic ambassadors.’ In the end, after some of the darkest years of the war, they felt they must return and set sail in 1942. It was while onboard that Britten started writing this glorious piece—a collection of eleven movements, with words mainly taken from the English of Chaucer and a bit later.
It is unusual—set just for treble voices (unbroken boys’ voices) and harp—but the effect is magical. The boys process in and out singing a plainsong chant (we have already heard Poulenc’s setting of that text)—and in between, true glories are contained. Each movement is a fragile but precious jewel. And I’ll never forget the time I heard ‘This little Babe’ live—electrifying. Who knew that boys + harp could convey both the seriousness of, and deadly threat to, this newborn’s mission so effectively? Follow the full text here.
Just as Dickens evokes (and probably invented) the Victorian Christmas, for me Britten’s Ceremony just is the mediaeval Christmas!
BONUS: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
—Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958, English) Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), Matthew Best (conductor), Corydon Singers, English Chamber Orchestra
Well, it’s Christmas and I couldn’t resist a bonus. It’s too long to include in the 5, but I really wanted Britten to get the 1! Some will have felt short-changed without traditional carols on the list. So here they are (or some at least). As a master of folksong and orchestration, Ralph Vaughan-Williams weaves them altogether and thus invites us into a kind of classical Behold The Lamb of God gig!