Many Stories – One Message
Simply said, all music tells a story. This is especially true about music with words, and our concert tonight is full of pieces with special stories to tell. Some of the works tell very short, clear and simple tales, for instance, our processional, "Gaudete!": Christ is born of the Virgin Mary. Rejoice! It’s difficult to be simpler than that. Or, by the famous early German composer Michael Praetorius, "Psallite unigenite": Sing psalms to the begotten Son of God, The little Child lies in the manger; all the angels serve him. It adds an interesting fillip about the angels.
Speaking of angels, we have the ever-popular 16th century French carol "Ding dong merrily on high" – in heaven the bells are ringing. This piece is especially enjoyable to sing because of the onomatopoeia of "ding dong", and the feeling that the floridly embellished line (fioratura) of the "Gloria" is rather dangerous!
Many of the works presented tonight have an unusual take on the Christmas story. The de Victoria motet, "O Magnum Mysterium" ponders the great mystery that it should be animals who witnessed the Christ child being born. "A Carol of Adoration", as its name implies, is a song of love-longing, a warm, ardent and emotional primer on how to love Christ completely.
In "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", the sound of the bells (interestingly in the bass line) move the poet from depression, as he considers the hold evil has on the world, to ecstasy as he thinks of the Christmas story and concludes that the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
"A Hymn to the Virgin" is from an anonymous 13th century poem, collected in the famous Quiller-Couch edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse, which is where Benjamin Britten would have come across it. He set the poem when he was only 17 years old. It is an amazingly sophisticated piece of music in its own right, and is not at all juvenile. The poem describes the Virgin Mary in many ways, not least as an antidote to and the opposite of the sinner Eve.
Our poem tonight is an extract from John Betjeman’s "Christmas". Betjeman was a former Poet Laureate whose centenary was celebrated in August this year. This poem, written in 1954, is a kind of 20th century "O Magnum Mysterium", with its message that artefacts of modern Christmas cannot compare with this single Truth … That God was Man in Palestine/And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
Sidney Carter, the composer of "Lord of the Dance", wrote: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus. The (Shaker) sect ... hived off to America in 1774 ... Dancing, for them, was a spiritual activity. Their hymns were odd, but sometimes of great beauty: from one of these (Simple Gifts) I adapted this melody. I could have written another for the words of 'Lord of the Dance' (some people have), but this was so appropriate that it seemed a waste of time to do so. Also, I wanted to salute the Shakers."
"Personent hodie" is often associated with the feast day of the Holy Innocents, December 28, which commemorates the young boys slain by King Herod in his vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus. In Medieval times it was frequently used as a processional for children or for apprentices. The great English composer Gustav Holst has given it an organ (or piano) accompaniment.
The shepherds tell the story in "L’Adieu des Bergers ŕ la Sainte Famille" from Belioz’s Oratorio L’Enfance du Christ. Their story starts as the baby and his parents are setting off from Bethlehem to travel to Egypt. The shepherds wish them well and want them to know that they can always come back and enjoy the hospitality of the simple folk.
Jeanne Conard and Michael Jones