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Thursday, December 15, 2011
What’s for Worship December 18th
By webmaster @ 10:14 AM :: 2902 Views :: 3 Comments :: Kenneth Dake

Several audio samples of this week’s music are included for you to enjoy as you read.

A Cavalcade of Carols

Even though it’s still only the fourth Sunday of Advent, musically we will already be in full Christmas dress this week.  Be sure to arrive in the sanctuary by 10:45 for a special Prelude by a terrific string quartet featuring Mina Smith, cellist, and her friends Pamela Frank and Andy Simionescu on violin, and Danielle Farina on viola.  Their dazzling array of carols, played with customary verve in the extreme, is always a highlight of our season!  They will also provide instrumental accompaniment to the Festival of Voices choir throughout what promises to be a poignant worship experience.

Hymn: Once In Royal David’s City (Irby)  The Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge is one of the world’s most revered services commemorating the Nativity.  It was begun in 1918 as a more imaginative approach to worship, interweaving nine lessons and carols which recounted the story of Christ’s incarnation from Genesis to John.  The service was first broadcast in 1928 and is now heard live by millions throughout the world.  Each year the service includes a newly commissioned work, and many of these have gone on to become staples of the choral repertoire. 

A hallmark of the Lessons and Carols service is its traditional opening hymn, Once in Royal David’s City [LISTEN]  It is always sung in procession beginning with a lone boy chorister’s voice, followed by the choir singing a cappella, and concluding with the entire congregation accompanied by full organ and treble descant.  (This Sunday the sopranos of the Festival of Voices will sing the opening verse.)  Thus is portrayed in sound the mighty crescendo of God’s divine plan, humbly beginning in a cattle stall with the fragile cry of a tiny baby, and culminating in heaven with Jesus’ triumphant reign at the right hand of God.  My favorite line comes right at the end: “When like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”  As I say to the choirs each year when we rehearse this hymn: following the frantic onslaught of the Christmas season, the notion of having nothing to do but “wait around” God’s throne is most appealing!

Different Tunes for Different Folks

Few ecclesiastical issues engender more passion and controversy than the pairing of an unfamiliar “new” tune to a cherished “old” Christmas carol.  Our individual cultural background mingled with the season’s deeply-embedded nostalgia tends to inspire unwavering allegiance to a specific tune for a given text.  For some, even hearing a new choral setting of a beloved Christmas text can feel jarring.  Below we’ll take a look at three different carols, and I invite you to listen to the audio samples as you read, taking note of how the various tunes shade the meaning of these familiar texts in unique ways.

In the Bleak Midwinter  This is the opening line in A Christmas Carol, a poem published in 1872 by the English poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  The first composer to set In the Bleak Midwinter to music was Gustav Holst (1874-1934) [LISTEN]  Rossetti’s words and Holst’s spare melody from 1906 combine to depict a barren, snow-covered landscape into which the Christ arrives.  While this may not be meteorologically accurate, considering the location of Bethlehem, it is a powerful theological metaphor for life coming to that which appears barren, warmth coming to that which lies frozen and lifeless, and hope dawning in the midst of that which seems bleak and hopeless.

For something a bit more on the romantic side, there is a beautiful tune for this well-known carol by Harold Darke (1888-1976).  As organist for fifty years at St. Michael’s Church in the heart of London, Darke became famous for his lunchtime organ recitals, of which he is said to have performed 1,833 in all.  That hardly seems possible!  He was just twenty-one when he composed this lush setting of In the Bleak Midwinter that will serve as the choir’s first anthem on Sunday.  [LISTEN]  This audio excerpt contains the final verse of the Rossetti’s poem, in which we are all invited to become a participant in the manger scene by presenting the only gift we truly can offer: ourselves.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him – give him my heart.

On that final phrase – “give him my heart” – Darke allows the tenors and altos to briefly share a lovely, soaring duet, and it is one of those nostalgic moments that causes my heart to well up with memory.  In my former church I conducted the choir in this music each year.  On this particular phrase I would always catch the eye of Bob Smith, a treasured friend and tenor for many years in the St. George’s Choral Society.  Each Christmas season it became our own little private moment of recognition, pregnant with meaning.  Sadly for those of us who loved him, Bob crossed over to the other side far sooner than he should have.  When I hear this phrase of music I can still see his radiant face and feel his beaming spirit as he embodied the message of what he sang, offering all of himself to God.

Away in a Manger(s)

The derivation of the text to Away in a Manger remains a mystery.  It first appeared anonymously in Philadelphia in an Evangelical Lutheran publication from 1885 entitled the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families.  Two years later it was published in Cincinnati in a collection with a title you just have to love: Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.  This time, however, the author was identified as none other than Martin Luther.  Furthermore, it stated that the carol was “composed for Luther’s children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.”  This may have been an advertising stroke of genius, for Away in a Manger quickly became America’s favorite children’s carol.  However, there is no shred of evidence that Martin Luther actually composed the text, or that any Germans outside of Pennsylvania sang it to their wee little ones.  To the contrary, along with We Three Kings of Orient Are it is one of the only thoroughly American Christmas carols to gain worldwide acceptance.

Now for the question of the tunes for Away in a Manger.  Our hymnal presents two options, and in my humble estimation (which, alas, is a minority view at Marble) the best one is the 1895 tune by William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921).  [LISTEN]  I must confess to being absolutely certain this sublime tune was of British origin because it contains such an innocent charm and elegance, devoid of anything syrupy or overly emotional.  I find it holds greater melodic interest than Mueller, the other tune offered in our hymnal, owing in part to the fact that each phrase cadences on a different harmony – one other than the ‘tonic’ or primary key.  As a result the music flows along and never gets stuck in one repeating harmony.  I associate this tune with the Episcopal Church, for whom it is the only setting of Away in a Manger offered in the hymnal, so I naturally assumed it must be an Anglican transplant.  How surprising to discover that William Kirkpatrick was in fact a lifelong Pennsylvanian whose church music career was entirely centered in Philadelphia.  Several of his hymn tunes are considered evangelical gems: A Wonderful Savior is Jesus My Lord, Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus, and He Hideth My Soul among many others.

Our next tune for Away in a Manger is a traditional tune from Normandy, a wonderful one that is more suitable for choral than congregational singing.  [LISTEN]  I find it fascinating that an anonymous 19th century text should wind its way from Philadelphia to Cincinnati to the Normandy region of France and back to American soil – only to return with entirely different music.  This tune is haunting and introspective – hardly one that ‘little lads and lasses’ would find appealing.  I find it to be an achingly beautiful melody with its gentle rise and fall and its series of delicious harmonic suspensions.  Interestingly, the tune ends not on the tonic but on the dominant chord (which in the key of A minor is an E major chord).  Thus instead of providing the expected final resolution, the music compels us to keep circling back to sing the tune over again.

Lastly, there is the cherished tune that we will sing as our middle hymn on Sunday, Mueller [LISTEN]  This was the first Away in a Manger tune to appear in print in 1885 in James Murray’s Dainty Songs collection.  And yes, it is the tune I sang as a small child, processing haltingly down the aisle with my angel costume and little wreath of tinsel quivering anxiously above my head.  (Is there anyone who grew up in a church who has not appeared in the role of either angel or shepherd?)  Musically Mueller may not be the best tune (it’s not) but it certainly warms the heart and awakens the child in all of us.

In with the New, but Not Out with the Old

Those in attendance at our Advent Concert earlier this month were treated to the singing of this familiar text to two different tunes, one old and one new.  It just goes to show that the new need not displace the old!  The tune Greensleeves  [LISTEN] is a quintessential example of English folk song, made all the more popular by Vaughan Williams’ use of it in his opera Sir John in Love and in his 1934 orchestra work, Fantasia on Greensleeves.  The tune was first published in 1580 by an enterprising printer named Richard Jones.  He referred to it as “A new Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves.”  Many believed that the words were written by King Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn and that she was the Lady Greene Sleeves referred to in the lyrics of the 19-verse ballad. This theory has yet to be proved, however.  Three centuries would come and go before this universally known melody would be paired with sacred words of William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), What Child Is This?, a hymn he composed specifically for the Day of Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day).

Offertory: What Child? by Paul Lohman  [LISTEN]  Rounding out the week’s cavalcade of carols old and new will be a stirring contemporary setting of What Child Is This by Minnesota composer and choral conductor, Paul Lohman.  With its sweeping melody and warm, embracing harmonies Lohman’s music enables our hearts to sing and our spirits to soar.  And after all, isn’t that what Christmas carols are supposed to do, whether they were composed in 1580 or 2011?  With each rising refrain the music proclaims the timeless message of Jesus’ birth:
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

By elhoag @ Thursday, December 15, 2011 7:09 PM
Told my choir director I was doing my pre-Christmas Marble fix this Sunday. I love getting Ken's blog to get a preview of the music along with some insightful background. I love your stirrups about the music and the ability to listen to excerpts.
BTW - I have made use of your recent quote with my regular Sunday choir -if you are going to sing something -say something. What a way to motivate a choir!!!!

By elhoag @ Thursday, December 15, 2011 7:12 PM
Guess I need to review my posts before I post them. I have no idea what "stirrups" was supposed to mean!!

By HeyJay40 @ Sunday, December 18, 2011 2:38 PM
Though I won't be there in person I will be watching online. Hark the Herald Angel Hear..Marbles music brings the cheer!!

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