When we think of music for Christmas, we often think of music with origins in Europe; many of the most famous carols, such as “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” are European. But American poets and composers, including many from the Boston area, have created vibrant texts and beautiful melodies around the Christmas story, all of which deserve to be better known. This afternoon we wish to share with you some of the amazing Christmas music from this side of the pond!
We begin our concert with a setting by Eleanor Daley (1955-) of “There Is No Rose,” a text that comes from an English carol in the early 15th century. Daley is a respected Canadian composer, conductor, organist, and accompanist. Her modern setting of this ancient text evokes medieval and Renaissance music with its use of open fifths, imitative entrances, and constantly shifting meter, but the harmonies are fresh and luminous.
“I Wonder As I Wander” is a folk song composed by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). Niles, often called the "Dean of American Balladeers", was a composer, singer, and collector of traditional American songs, particularly those from Appalachia. This particular song is based on a fragment of a folk song that he collected in 1933 in North Carolina. Niles was attending a meeting of evangelicals who had been ordered by police to leave town. During this meeting, the young Anna Morgan stepped on stage and sang one line of song. Niles was completely taken with this fragment, and Morgan repeated it for him seven times in exchange for seven quarters. Niles left with, in his own words "three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea". Based on that song fragment he composed “I Wonder As I Wander,” which is now a well-known and loved American carol. Substantial confusion has arisen over the years about whether Niles composed the song, or collected and arranged it (even our music, purchased this year, says “collected, adapted, and arranged by John Jacob Niles”) but at this point it is widely accepted that Niles is indeed the composer.
Our program features two works by the talented American choral composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984). The first, “Nowel”, is from a larger work, The Nativity according to St. Luke: A Musical Drama in Seven Scenes. This movement is from Scene VI, “The Adoration,” and is sung by the shepherds, first a few, then the whole chorus. Thompson composed many notable choral works, and was both an alumnus of and a professor at Harvard, where he taught, among others, Leonard Bernstein.
No concert of American choral music would be complete without a piece by local luminary Daniel Pinkham. Pinkham (1923-2006) was born in Lynn, studied at Harvard and Tanglewood, taught at New England Conservatory, and served as Music Director of King’s Chapel in Boston from 1958-2000. He was a prolific and versatile composer, writing symphonies, chamber works, concertos, operas, electronic music, and twenty film scores, as well as numerous pieces for all varieties of choral ensembles. His three-movement work Manger Scenes was originally scored for mezzo-soprano and piano, but was rearranged for two-part chorus and piano. Most of the time in these three movements the chorus sings in unison, often seeming at odds with the piano, but in fact the accompaniment almost always includes the notes of the melody. This piece skirts the line between tonality and atonality; the singers have fairly tonal melodies while the piano sometimes plays two chords from two different keys at one time, or plays a wide-spread cluster of notes, but even in the piano part there are still clear tonal centers. For the texts, Pinkham chose three poems by Norma Farber (1909-1984), also a local talent. Farber was born and lived most of her life in Boston. She published poetry as well as books for children (one notable title was “As I Was Crossing Boston Common.”) She was also a classical soprano, and won Belgium's Premier Prix in singing in 1936. The first poem addresses tinier animals than we are used to thinking of in the manger; the second is a sad and intensely personal poem from Mary’s point of view watching Joseph hold the baby Jesus; and the last addresses the visit of the three queens, who came a little later than the three kings!
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) is the composer of “Oh, Sing of the King Who Was Tall and Brown,” a movement from a larger work called The Ballad of the Brown King. Bonds was born in Chicago, and wrote her first piece at age five. She studied piano with her mother, a church organist, and subsequently studied composition with William Dawson and Florence Price. She became quite famous during her lifetime as a pianist and composer, both soloing with and having her work premiered by major American symphonies.
Bonds was a close friend of Langston Hughes, and collaborated with him frequently. The Ballad of the Brown King sets Hughes’ poetry in nine movements and uses elements of music from various African-American traditions, such as jazz, blues, calypso, and spirituals. Originally for voice and piano, it was later re-scored for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and premiered in New York in 1954. This was at the beginning of the civil rights movement, and by concentrating on the tale of Balthazar, the “brown king,” Hughes could give African-Americans a point of entry into a story that they might otherwise have felt distanced from. Despite being performed frequently in the ‘50s, it has since faded from the public eye. Hopefully, Bonds’ music is being rediscovered; The Ballad of the Brown King received a complete performance last year in California by the Long Beach Chorale.
Our program also includes a number of works by conductor emeritus Kenneth Seitz. Over the years, Seitz composed and arranged a great number of Christmas works for Cantilena. The ones we are singing today are some of our favorites! His thoughts on his compositions follow:
The Appalachian melody which inspired this setting of “Hail the Blest Morn!” is to be found in the New Oxford Book of Carols, where it exists as a fetching alternative to the more traditional tune published in William Walker's The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, easily the most popular tunebook of the nineteenth century. In my setting, the solo oboe first establishes the flavor and modality of the tune. The melody proper begins in the chorus, unadorned, soon to be joined by a second vocal line strongly suggestive of a later century. Again the oboe sings its tune, and yet a third voice brings its contribution to the mix. Now oboe and chorus unite in final verse; words cease, and oboe, with a merest suggestion of melody, leads to stillness.
“Carol,” a text from Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows has received well-deserved attention from a variety of composers. One of these, Brian Holmes (a cherished colleague of mine and a long-term contributor to Cantilena's musical history), sent me his setting of the poem some years ago. I have always been an admirer of Brian's muse, and I proved it then by informing him that I could not dare to look at his setting, as I had long coveted the text and did not want to risk being influenced by his inevitably appealing music. My being asked to contribute something new to Cantilena's 2011 holiday concert has proved to be the opportunity I needed to finally set Grahame's delightful words to music. And now, at last, Brian and I can exchange our versions freely.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is one of the the very few popular Christmas carols that are completely American in origin. The words are by Edmund Sears (1810-1876), a Unitarian minister who was born in Sandisfield, MA and lived most of his life here, serving congregations in Wayland, Lancaster, and Weston. Sears wrote the poem in 1849, and the troubling unrest of the times (the Civil War was on the horizon) is evident in the text. A year later, Boston-born composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) wrote his hymn-tune “Carol” for different lyrics, but it is now associated with Sears’ poem. (Incidentally, Willis traveled to Germany as a young man and became a friend of Mendelssohn, who is the composer of another famous carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”)
Regarding “In the Lonely Midnight,” Seitz says:
The text is an adaptation of a seasonal text by Theodore Chickering Williams (1855-1915), who served as minister and educator at various locations in Massachusetts and New York. Some years ago, I was looking for something out of the ordinary to set for a service here at First Parish, and the carol-like flavor of Williams' lyrics hit the spot. Originally written for a chorus of mixed voices, the music was later arranged—and rearranged—especially for the treble voices of Cantilena.
The second Randall Thompson piece, which falls in the second half of our concert, is a setting of the Elinor Wylie poem “Velvet Shoes.” Wylie (1885-1928) was born in New Jersey, married three times, and had a dramatic and frequently unhappy life. Her poetry was deeply influenced by the British Romantic poets, particularly Shelley. “Velvet Shoes” was one of her first poems to be published – along with three others, it was featured in Poetry magazine in 1920. Thompson’s setting, featuring a gentle “far-away” march in the piano and a lovely, simple unison melody for the voices, was one of my favorite pieces to sing as a child, and is very evocative for me of serenity and peaceful white winters; I hope it will evoke the same for you! I also hope you enjoy the contrast between Thompson’s very simple setting of this text, and Seitz’s more harmonically complex and ethereal work.
On his own setting of this text, Seitz remarks:
Although Elinor Wylie's poignantly wistful invitation to an unnamed beloved stands in sharp contrast to the painful realities of her various marital and romantic relationships, the poem's exquisite picturing of an evocative, snow-bedecked winter stroll never fails to draw one to a very special place in heart and mind. Inspired by the poem and my own wintry memories, I set the text quite a while ago in response to a friend's request for a solo song. The music was eventually arranged for Cantilena, and was tweaked yet again for this concert. (My apologies to the singers who remember a previous version, but I rather like what the song has become.)
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” probably needs no introduction. There is much discussion about what the various days’ gifts might mean, but the song’s origins are still up for debate. It was first published in England in 1780, but there is some textual evidence (such as the partridge) that it originated in France, and there are three known French versions. While therefore not exactly American, Ken Seitz has given this arrangement such an original stamp that we felt it belonged on this program! The setting gives our accompanist and guest flautist a chance to show off with some flashy and dramatic text-painting. Also, you might notice that we are singing a slightly older version of day four: “calling birds” was originally “colly birds,” or blackbirds, and those are the words you will hear today.
“Go Where I Send Thee!” is a fantastically energetic and rocking gospel arrangement of a traditional African-American spiritual. There are many versions of this song with multiple lyric variations, and it has been covered by countless popular artists. Some of the lyrics are self-evident, but some are a little more obscure, and for those an explanation might be in order.
“Eleven of them singing in heaven” (right after “Twelve for the twelve disciples”) implies that Judas Iscariot might not have made it upstairs with his fellows. In the Christian angelic hierarchy, there are nine types of angels, hence the reference to “nine for the angel choirs divine.” “Eight for the eight the flood couldn’t take” refers to Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their three wives, eight in all. Seven and six refer to the fact that in Genesis, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. “Five for the bread they did divide” refers to the Biblical story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. “Four for the Gospel writers” refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “Three for the Hebrew children” refers to the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar but were saved by an angel and survived. “Two for Paul and Silas” refers to Paul of Tarsus, the most influential early Christian missionary, and believed to be the author of substantial sections of the New Testament. Silas was known to have accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
We hope you enjoy this American Christmas journey! We will be making a professional recording of this program in January, and plan to release it next fall, just in time for next Christmas. Please consider joining our mailing list so we can keep you updated on this very exciting project. May you and yours have a very merry Christmas season!