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Monday, December 19, 2011
What’s for Worship Christmas Eve & Day, 2011
By webmaster @ 12:04 AM :: 1931 Views :: 0 Comments :: Kenneth Dake

Several audio samples of the services’ music are included for you to enjoy as you read. (Program notes for Christmas Eve will also appear in the printed service bulletin.)

Christmas Eve  (Prelude for Choir and Brass begins at 6:10 and 8:10pm)

On Saturday evening and Sunday morning the choral music will feature Christmastide texts that have been sung across many centuries and continents.  The fact that generations of composers continually turn to these ancient words for inspiration attests to their enduring truth and timeless beauty.  Amidst the secularization of the season they remind us of the holy.  Their theology and poetry form an intersection of religion and art, inspiring a wealth of transcendent music that never becomes obsolete.  As music and words commingle to reveal new layers of truth, may we hear afresh the song of angels on that holiest night.

Both Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli (1510-1586) served as organists at Venice’s famed Cathedral of San Marco, including a short period of time during which they were on staff together.  Consequently much of their ceremonial music was written in the Venetian polychoral style. Widely spaced antiphonal choirs answered each other across the reverberant cathedral, often accompanied by separate bands of instruments.  In Quem Vidistis, Pastores  [LISTEN] the choirs echo one another as they engage in an imagined dialogue between shepherds and angels that is based on the second chapter of Luke.  This text is traditionally sung during the first two services (Matins and Lauds) on Christmas morning.  On the phrase ‘collaudantes Dominum’ (praising God) the music seamlessly shifts into ¾ time, thereby imbuing the shepherds’ praise with a joyful spirit of dance.

In Dulci Jubilo [LISTEN] is thought to have originated in the 14th century with Heinrich Suso (or Seuse), a German mystic of the Dominican order and student of Meister Eckhart.  Legend has it that around the feast of Christmas Suso had a vision in which he was visited by angels.  They took him by the hand and led him in a dance while singing In Dulci Jubilo, and such was Suso’s delight that all his sufferings vanished.  The plainsong melody, presumably gifted by the angels, evolved over centuries into a triple meter dance-carol that became popular throughout Europe and was appropriated by numerous composers.  Modern hymnals include John Mason Neale’s famous paraphrase, Good Christian Friends, RejoiceMichael Praetorius (1571-1621) opens his setting with a solemn chorale for brass alone, followed by a jaunty dance in which choir and brass toss the melody back and forth.

The choir then sings two Marian motets, liturgical texts set by 20th century composers.  In music that is uncharacteristically lacking in dissonance, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) employs an anonymous text circa 1300 for his Hymn to the Virgin[LISTEN] Each phrase in English is sung by the primary choir and subsequently answered in Latin by the second choir.  The primary chorus represents the devout on earth, worshiping in the vernacular with emotional music that conveys a passionate spirituality.  The Latin semi-chorus represents heavenly angels, calmly echoing earth’s praise from a celestial distance.

Aside from his beloved Ave Maria, [LISTEN] the music of Franz Biebl (1906-2001) is rarely performed.  Biebl studied conducting, composition and church music at the State Music Academy in Munich.  In 1943 he was drafted into the German army and was soon captured by the U.S., becoming a prisoner of war detained in Battle Creek, Michigan, for three years.  Following the war he settled in Fürstenfeldbruck, Bavaria.   In 1970 Biebl crossed paths with the Cornell Glee Club, which was on tour in Germany, and he shared some of his unpublished compositions with their director.  The Glee Club therefore became the first choir to bring his ravishingly beautiful Ave Maria to this country, and Chanticleer later made it into one of their signature pieces.   It is perhaps the most cherished and frequently sung contemporary setting of this ancient Marian hymn. 

César Alejandro Carrillo is a conductor and composer living in Caracas, Venezuela.  He began his musical studies as a cellist and went on to earn his degree in choral conducting from the Instituto Universitario de Estudios Musicales.  Carillo’s music has been described as atmospheric prayerfulness, and there is a tender intimacy which pervades his setting of O Magnum Mysterium.  Centuries of composers have set this liturgical text, which is traditionally sung during the early morning service on Christmas Day.  It expresses the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation, the ultimate juxtaposition of earthly and divine realms – “that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their manger.” 

Born on a New Day  [LISTEN] began not as a Christmas song but rather as a single on a 1978 LP by the Airwaves, a Welsh studio band.  Band member John David (b. 1946) describes his inspiration for the song:

I had just had a major blow in my personal life and was sitting alone late at night watching an ominous story on the news about the very real possibility of nuclear war.  I started singing to the (hopefully) soon-to-arrive New Day like it was an entity that would rescue me from the depths. If the sun came up and the birds started singing as usual then I could believe that it really was the new day in which life would go on, and in which hope would survive. 

Peter Knight created a choral arrangement of You Are the New Day for the King’s Singers, and it quickly became one of their greatest crossover hits.  Philip Lawson, a longtime member of the King’s Singers, later revised the lyric into a Christmas text that placed the New Day, for which John David had so longed, within the context of the birth of the Christ-child, the very embodiment of hope.

Peter Hamlin taught composition for twelve years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota before assuming a similar post at Middlebury College in Vermont.  He composed Behold the Wonder of this Night  [LISTEN] in 1998 as part of a four-movement work entitled Reflections of the Sky.  Its poetry is by Bruce Benson, the college chaplain of St. Olaf and host of a national radio program of sacred music called Sing for Joy.  Benson’s evocative words paint the birth of Jesus against the backdrop of common, ordinary life, the “usual usualness” of sleep and work, the world’s “customary mix” of good and evil.  Into this vast human normalcy bursts the unexpected, the extraordinary, the divine – and with it our sense of awe and wonder at all God has done.

One of the outstanding preachers in 19th-century America was Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), author of O Little Town of Bethlehem.  Brooks wrote his beloved poem in 1868 while serving Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.  He had returned from a trip to the Holy Land that made an indelible impression on him, and soon thereafter he was searching for something for the children to sing in their Sunday School Christmas program.  Not finding anything to his liking he penned this carol, with his recent pilgrimage serving as inspiration.  His organist, Lewis Redner, was then charged with composing the music, and he wrote St. Louis, the tune most commonly found in American hymnals.  [LISTEN]  Kenneth Jennings (b. 1925), conductor of the famed St. Olaf Choir for twenty-two years, reframed Brooks’ text with his own original music.  Jennings’ soaring melody conveys a soulful yearning, floating above harmonies of nostalgic poignancy.

O Nata Lux [LISTEN] may be the only text in this service not liturgically associated with the Nativity.  Rather, it is the appointed hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration, traditionally observed on August 6th , as well as the final Sunday in Epiphany.  The story is recounted of how Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain and was transfigured before their eyes in dazzling, brilliant light.  Commissioned in 1997 for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lux Aeterna is a five-movement oratorio on the theme of light composed by Morten Lauridsen (b. 1947).  O Nata Lux is a sublime cappella motet at the center of the larger work.  It glows with the shimmering harmonies and luminous textures for which Lauridsen is renowned.  He has been described as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic – whose probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all questions have been answered.”  This text is appropriate for the service of Communion on Christmas Eve, for it is the Light of Light whose birth we celebrate, and it is the One who became clothed in flesh who invites us to partake of His feast.

Christmas Day

After all the deeply profound and somewhat serious music of Christmas Eve the choir will begin the Christmas Day service on a much lighter note with a rollicking arrangement of the spiritual Go Tell It on the Mountain by Kevin Oldham (1960-1993).  A beloved member of the Marble Sanctuary Choir, Kevin was born in Kansas City, Missouri to a family of singers.  He and I were classmates at Juilliard, where we both studied piano with Sascha Gorodnitzki.  Kevin was a dazzling pianist as well as an inspired composer.  His arrangement of Go Tell It on the Mountain was created for the Marble Sanctuary Choir in 1989 and has much joy and humor.  At times he calls for a quasi big-band jazz sound, and there are some surprising harmonic twists, including a foray from G major into B major for  the second verse (“down in a lowly manger”).  Upon learning of his diagnosis of HIV in 1988 Kevin became increasingly determined that his work would continue to have life after he was gone.  It is fitting that Kevin’s musical legacy lives on at his beloved Marble, his spiritual home during his final years.

With a career that spanned both the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, Jan Pieters Sweelinck (1562-1621)  is considered by many to be the dean of Dutch composers.  When we celebrated Dutch Heritage Day at Marble in September of 2009 we featured his music prominently in the service.  Nearly his entire life was spent in Amsterdam, where he served as organist of Oude Kerk for 44 years.  He composed over 250 choral works, and perhaps his most famous motet is his Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ Is Born).  [LISTEN] Along with the O Magnum Mysterium, the Hodie is one of the most traditional Christmas texts, one that continues to be sung in churches around the world in celebration of the Nativity.  It is based on Luke 2:11 – “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,” and its repeated emphasis on the word “hodie” (today) provides a thrilling immediacy to the text.  Sweelinck employs a wonderful variety of colors and textures, alternating between homophonic writing (all voices sounding together) and contrapuntal (voices entering independently in imitation of one another).  “Alleluias” and “Noels” burst out of the choral texture in ecstatic proclamation.  Of all the musical settings of this revered text, Sweelinck’s is a masterpiece that remains unsurpassed.

For me no Christmas would be complete without the singing of the exquisitely beautiful Basque carol, The Infant King [LISTEN] in this splendidly unadorned arrangement by David Willcocks.  The music is that of a gentle lullaby at the manger, quietly rocking the baby asleep.  The text opens with the silent adoration of angels and stars, but subsequent verses remind us of all that lies ahead for the Christ-child: the sorrow, grief and weeping (an allusion to the slaying of the Holy Innocents); the pain of the cross and burial in a stranger’s grave; and ultimately the “gladsome” Easter morning when Death itself will be conquered.  To me there is no more profound Christmas text, for this soul-stirring lullaby reminds us of all that Jesus will endure and ultimately overcome for our sake.

Offertory: I Saw Three Ships  We’ll return to a buoyant mood for our offertory with this English carol in a sparkling arrangement by Mark Riese.  Many children may have first learned this carol from Count von Count on Sesame Street, as it is one of his favorites, but historians love to debate the symbolism of the three ships.  They may refer to the three Magi journeying with their gifts to Bethlehem, or possibly they are a reference to the Holy Trinity.  Perhaps it recalls the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians – “faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love” – Christ being the very embodiment of all three.  Nevertheless, it has been a treasured Christmas carol since it first appeared in the British Isles in 1666, almost as old as the Collegiate Church itself!

May Christ be Born Again

I wish everyone a most joyous and music-filled Christmas, and I leave you with these words:

What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?  We are all meant to be mothers of God.  God is always needing to be born. – Meister Eckhart

Prince of Peace, be born again into our world. 
Wherever there is war in this world,
Wherever there is pain,
Wherever there is loneliness,
Wherever there is no hope,
Come, thou long-expected one, with healing in thy wings. 

Holy Child, whom shepherds and kings and dumb beasts adored,
Be born again. 
Wherever there is boredom,
Wherever there is fear of failure,
Wherever there is temptation too strong to resist,
Wherever there is bitterness of heart,
Come, thou blessed one, with healing in thy wings. 
Savior, be born in each of us.  – Fredrick Buechner

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