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Program Notes

Fall 2013 —
Ceremony of Carols

Sunday, December 8, 2013 at 4 p.m.
Allegra Martin, director
Josh Lawton, piano

Barbara Poeschl-Edrich, harp


Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols is one of those pieces that is responsible for fathering a great many other pieces. It is half an hour long, so it nicely fills one half of a concert; and over the years, many composers have been commissioned or stepped forward to write companion pieces. John Rutter, Conrad Susa, Michael Mauldin, and Daniel Pinkham include those who have written Christmas-themed music for women’s chorus and harp. Tonight we are excited to introduce you to a relatively obscure but beautiful work by a composer who deserves to be better known, Paul Csonka.


The life of Paul Csonka reads like a condensed history of the 20th century. The highly dramatic arc of his life is sadly beyond the scope of these program notes, but definitely worth looking up. Born to a rich Austro-Hungarian family in 1905, he became friends with most of the famous European musicians of his day, including Toscanini and von Karajan. He founded an opera company in Salzburg; fled to Cuba to escape the Nazis and built up the Havana National Opera company; fled to America to escape Castro and founded the Palm Beach Opera Company. His life intersected with numerous well-known figures, from Sigmund Freud to Cat Stevens.


Csonka’s Concierto de Navidad is one of his most popular works. It was published in 1958, during his time in Cuba and is dedicated to Edna Phillips, then the principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As the Reading Eagle reported in 1957 that she was going to perform Mr. Csonka’s “Nativity Cantata” with the Cedar Crest College Concert Choir, it seems reasonable to deduce that she premiered the work.


Concierto de Navidad is in three movements. The first movement describes the anticipated transition from shadows to light when Jesus arrives. The second is a hymn of praise to the baby Jesus, and the third is a lullaby. Csonka’s music uses fresh harmonies and juxtaposes different triads to create music that is sometimes reverent, sometimes gentle, and sometimes spooky. In the last movement, the rapidity and excitement of the music is at odds with the lullaby text, until the end of the movement when a sudden transition into a slower tempo would seem to indicate the baby has finally fallen asleep. I hope you enjoy discovering Csonka and his music as much as we did. I am immensely grateful to Barbara Poeschl-Edrich for introducing me to this work!


Gabriel Fauré wrote his Impromptu, Op. 86 in 1904 to be a competition piece for the annual contest for harp students at the Paris Conservatoire. Fauré was on the composition faculty at the school, and all students who competed were required to learn the same piece in a given year. Despite its technical demands, its loveliness has earned it a central place in the solo harp repertoire.


“El Noi de la Mare” is a popular Christmas tune from Catalonia, a region in the northeast corner of Spain. Though Catalan shares traits with both Spanish and French, it is recognized as its own language. The text is a discussion between several shepherds about what treats they might bring to the baby Jesus. The arrangement is by Paul Carey, an American composer who specializes in music for women’s voices.


Benjamin Britten wrote the first draft of A Ceremony of Carols while on a boat from America back home to England. He had just spent three years in the United States, where he had gone to expand his career horizons as a composer. In 1942, Britten read the work of the British poet George Crabbe, and became so homesick that he decided he needed to return to England. On the boat ride home, Britten managed to break free of the writer’s block he had been experiencing, and not only wrote the first draft of A Ceremony of Carols but finished the beloved a cappella choral work Hymn to St. Cecilia as well.

Britten had received a request for a concerto from an American harpist before leaving; although the concerto never materialized, his study of harp manuals paid off in A Ceremony of Carols. Another stroke of luck occurred when Britten’s ship was berthed in Halifax. He went to a bookstore and found a copy of the book The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, a collection in Middle English. Most of the texts in A Ceremony of Carols are taken from this collection. We can tell from early drafts that originally Britten had imagined the work for women’s voices, but the published score indicates that he finally decided to write it for boys’ voices. (We would argue that you can’t let the boys have all the fun.) The music moves through a variety of moods, joyful and wistful by turns. Many of Britten’s melodies in this work are so tuneful that it seems hard to believe they are not a thousand years old. Britten also frequently employs the idea of imitation, having different vocal lines sing the same melody at staggered intervals. The most exciting example of this technique comes in “This Little Babe,” but he also uses imitation in “As Dew in Aprille” and “In Freezing Winter Night.”


Britten would have been 100 years old last month on Nov. 22 (which happens to be the day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.) We hope you enjoy this birthday tribute to Benjamin Britten, and our celebration of the union of harp and voice!






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