Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we are now upon my favorite season of the year. There is something very, very special and mysterious about the onset of winter, the short days that have most of us driving home in the dark, and the anticipation of this season of the year. I want to say Christmas, but in school this seems to be a very touchy subject these days. We are not allowed to have “Christmas” trees in the school, or any kind of decoration that might allude to the “Christmas” season, for fear that we may offend another. I have never quite understood this mindset, but nevertheless have been forced to make sure that anything I say during this season does not imply anything Christian.
But it goes without saying that this season has inspired some of the most amazing music in the choral repertoire, and I thought I might take this opportunity to suggest that we all take the time to listen to the music that has been inspired by the season. I have, of course, my own opinions and my own favorites, but it might at least act as a launching point to inspire all of us to take the time from our own very busy schedules to discover new works and re-discover ones we already know. I am an avid collector of recordings, so I have a multitide of recordings to draw from; I hope you all will join in this yearly ritual that I always participate in and find great joy as a result. As music makers ourselves, it is often difficult to change our role to that of the “listener.” But it can be very rewarding, and I truly believe that we all should take the time to do this. However, if you are not willing to read this entire missive, here are my suggestions for listening this Christmas season!
Messiah………………………………….George Frederick Handel
Hodie…………………………………….Ralph Vaughan Williams
Cantata #63 & 65……………………..Johann Sebastian Bach
Bethlehem Bach Choir
Many Moods of Christmas…………….arr. Robert Russell Bennet
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Robert Shaw Chorale
All Night Vigil……………………………Sergei Rachmaninov
Amahl & The Night Visitors……………Gian Carlo Menottii
Ceremony of Carols………………………Benjamin Britten
Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel…….Francis Poulenc
Christmas Oratorio…………………………..Johann Sebastian Bach
Every year I listen to the perenniel favorite, the “Messiah” of George Frederick Handel! This oratorio needs no introduction to any of us; we know it well and probably want to NOT hear parts of it ever again! But I would encourage you all to find some quiet time, sit down with your favorite recording with score, and listen to it in a different way. As many times as I have listened to this score and taught so many of the choruses and solos to choirs and students, I find the entire oratorio an absolute miracle; one that we are so blessed to have and to hear each year. Indeed, the writing that Handel exhibited in this work is masterful in every way; remarkable in its’ artistry and in its power to mirror the text. I have many recordings of this, on both CD and older vinyl records (I simply cannot part with my cherished vinyl recordings!), but I still find the Shaw recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus my favorite. Shaw’s remarkable ability to imbue everything he touches with rhythmic integrity pleases me; but beyond that his honest and straightforward approach and musical integrity always win me over. The tempos are a bit faster than what we might expect, but it is clean, expressive and superbly done. Kaaren Erickson, Sylvia McNair, Alfreda Hodgson, Jon Humphrey and Richard Stilwell bring impeccable solo interpretations to this recording.
Another extended work that I am very fond of is Ralph Vaughan Williams “Hodie.” I find this work very moving and extraordinary again in its masterful writing, yet one does not hear this work performed often. I have always wondered why, for all the years that we have had a Symphony Chorus associated with the Vermont Symphony, that they have not yet performed this piece. It is also amazing to me that the piece was not begun by V. Williams until 1952 and first performed in 1954, so it is only a mere 55 years old! I have always been fond of the 5th movement, the a cappella choral “The Blessed Son Of God” and swept away by the final “Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres.” The narrations that appear between larger movements are beautiful and moving as sung by boys (as I recall). “The March of the Three Kings,” “Lullaby” and the “Prologue” are other movements that bear listening. This is a great masterpiece of power, healing and hope that should be listened to this coming month! My favorite recording is on the EMI label, with Richard Hickox directing the London Symphony Orchestra with Chorus. A powerful and stunning reading of this great work!
I am also a fan of the Bethlehem Bach Choir under Greg Funfgeld, and they have put out several recordings that I really like to listen to at this time of year. In particular, I like the recording of the Bach Cantata BWV 63 (Christen atzet diesen Tag) and Cantata BWV 65 (Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen). The Bethlehem Choir sings almost exclusively Bach, and their performances are always well rehearsed and beautifully delivered. They have, however, made a few Christmas recordings with the usual varied assortment of tasteful carols, and they make wonderful listening. Most Bach Choir recordings can be found on the Dorian label, although MHS has one of their best Christmas albums, “While Shepherds Watched.” If you like Robert Shaw, and you enjoyed and followed the Atlanta years, he has a whole series of Christmas recordings, all on the Telarc label, that offer tasteful carols of all sorts, mixed with excerpts from other larger works. I have an older Robert Shaw Chorale recording (The Many Moods Of Christmas) that feature the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra & Organ with arrangements by Robert Russell Bennet that always brings delight and never fails to please.
I suppose one does not think of Rachmaninov’s “All-Night Vigil” as a piece used for performance this time of year, yet there is something about it that makes me want to include it in my Christmas listening routine. The demands are plentiful and beyond the scope of many choirs to perform, yet many of the movements seem to me to fit the season, and I therefore include it on the list. I have several recordings of this magnificent work, but again, I do so enjoy the Shaw recording made in Atlanta. It was, if I remember correctly, a Grammy winner!
Settings of the “Magnificat” abound, and I would imagine that somehow this fits into our listening lists for the season? I love the Rutter setting of this text, but we might be remiss if we did not also include the Bach setting. Both are different, of course, but each has its own character and beauty. The Bach, of course, is a confirmed masterpiece; the Rutter is rich in imagery, with gracious writing for the voices.
Another work that is often overlooked these days is Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl And The Night Visitors.” This is actually an opera in one act concerning Amahl, a crippled child. It was inspired by the great painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Adoration Of The Magi,” and contains much beautiful music worth the effort. I believe the premier of this work was 1952…it was actually commissioned as the first opera for television and for years was annually shown on December 24, the actual day of its original premier. At any rate, this is a beautiful story and well worth the time to watch.
Another less overlooked work but nonetheless worth our time is the Britten “Ceremony Of Carols” written for treble voices, soloists and harp. Who among us does not know and respond to “Wolcum Yole!” or “Balulalow.” “This little Babe,” the beautiful interlude, “Deo Gracias” and the “Spring Carol” must surely elicit some emotional response from us that know the work well. I always enjoy listening to this work again and again; it is a small investment of time considering the rewards one can receive from this music!
Lest we forget our friend Francis Poulenc, we are all familiar with, I am sure, with his Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel. These four pieces have numerous obstacles to overcome in performance, but what little gems they are. The first, “O Magnum Mysterium” is maybe the most deeply felt of the four, with beautiful melodic gestures and surprising harmonic turns. The second, “Quem Vidistis, Pastores,” is well known and is a conversation between the shepherds and others. The third, “Videntes stellam,” is quite simple in its homophonic setting, and the fourth, “Hodie Christus natus est,” is a joyful proclamation of the
birth of Christ. What wonderful music this indeed is…something we might all consider listening to this season!
Certainly not to be left out here is Johann Sebastien Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” actually three cantatas combined to form a whole. This work is magnificent and well worth the three hours it will take to listen to the entire work. It is roughly divided into six sections; 1) the Birth of Jesus 2) the annunciation to the shepherds 3) the adoration of the shepherds 4) the naming of Jesus 5) the journey of the Magi and 6) the adoration of the Magi. I first sang this piece many years ago with the University of Vermont Choral Union under James Chapman with the New York Chamber Soloists in the Flynn Theater, of all places! I do not
remember how the performance went exactly, but I know that the music set me on fire and I have been hooked on it since.
There is more, but I think this is sufficient for a start! If you have made it this far, you are surely a dedicated ACDA member!