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Program Notes for the December 5th, 2004 Concert of the NSCS

by Donald Draganski

 

Although all the major works on today's program draw on the religious origins of Christmas, we might remind ourselves that midwinter revels long antedated the arrival of Christianity. Celebrations to Mithra, the Roman festival of Kalends, Teutonic solstice sun-worship -- all of these have infiltrated and permeated our Holiday revels. England , in particular -- at least in pre-Cromwellian days -- marked the seasons with considerable gusto, and with only a cursory nod to the birth of the Babe. I quote from a play by Thomas Middleton (1570-1627) in which he describes the Yuletide feasts common to the countryside:

 

Men may talk of country-christmasses and court-gluttony,

Their thirty-pound buttered eggs, their pies of carp's tongues,

Their pheasants drenched with ambergris, the carcases

Of three fat wethers [gelded rams] bruised for gravy, to

Make sauce for a single peacock.

Moreover, Middleton goes on to point out that

yet their feasts

Were fasts, compared with the city's.

And what of Christmas in our own day? It is, in the words of Tristram Coffin, "An incredible mix of Mass and masses, miracles and eggnog, camels and reindeer, ecstasy and commercial agony undreamed of in the auld lang syne."

 *****

Daniel Pinkham, born 1923, is a graduate of Harvard and has studied under a distinguished roster of composers that includes Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Artur Honegger, Samuel Barber, and Nadia Boulanger. His mastery of the keyboard owes much to his studies with Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord and E. Power Biggs on the organ. He was appointed director of the King's Chapel, Boston , a position he held until 2000; concurrently he also served as a member of the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music. 

His Christmas Cantata , subtitled "Sinfonia Sacra," a 20th century homage to the Baroque, recalls the brilliance of the Venetian school of chorus-and-brass music, particularly as embodied in the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. The Cantata is cast in the form of three contrasting short movements and is scored for chorus and double brass choir.

The first movement, "Quem vidistis?" ("What have you seen, shepherds?"), relates how the shepherds learned of the newborn Christ child. The text is drawn from the antiphon verses sung at Christmas Midnight Mass.

The second movement, "O magnum mysterium" ("Oh great mystery"), tells how the animals in the stable observed Christ's birth, further extolling the mystery of the virgin birth. This text is drawn from one of the responses sung in monasteries at matins, or daybreak, on Christmas day.

The final movement, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" ("Glory to God in the highest"), a hymn of praise which the angels sing, is derived in part from a passage in the gospel of Luke. It is sung or recited as part of the Proper of the High Mass. Pinkham's setting is particularly felicitous in its alteration of energetic brass sections with a cappella choral passages.

Pinkham's Christmas Cantata was previously performed by the NSCS in November 1981, under the direction of James Winfield.

*****

Paul Csonka was born in 1905 in Vienna of a wealthy family. Rather than following his father in the oil business, he pursued a musical career, and at the age of twenty-eight he formed the Opera Guild of Salzburg , a company that specialized in presenting both 20th century operas and operas written before the 18th century. The political atmosphere in Europe led to the disbanding of the company in 1938, and Csonka fled to Cuba , where he continued to compose, teach, and write music criticism. (In 1944 he received an honorary doctor's degree from the New York College of Music.) He became a Cuban citizen in 1947 but left the island when Fidel Castro assumed power.

His stateside career began in 1962 when he became creative director of the Grand Opera Company of Palm Beach (now known as the Palm Beach Opera Company), a post he held until 1983. He also worked with the Opera Department of the University of Louisiana and was engaged as a vocal coach with the Lyric Opera of Chicago during its 1956 season. (It should also be noted that he won $11,000 on a TV trivia quiz show on, naturally, the subject of opera.) After an extended illness, Csonka died in the Hospice of Palm Beach County on November 24, 1995, at the age of 90.

Csonka's compositional output includes symphonies, operas, solo songs, concertos, and numerous other works, both instrumental and vocal. Many of his works are infused with Cuban rhythms and folk material. He composed his Concierto de Navidad , for women's voices and harp, in 1958; it is dedicated to Edna Phillips, who was harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece is in three movements: "Amoroso Pastorcillo" (text by Dianisio Solis), which encourages the shepherds in the field to sing and dance in preparation of the birth of Christ; "Al Niño Jesús" (text by Ventura de la Vega), a hymn of praise to Jesus; and the concluding movement, "La Nana" (poem by R. S. Gomis), a lullaby to the newborn babe.

*****

The British composer John Rutter was born in 1945 and did his advanced studies at Clare College , Cambridge . He conducted the choir of his former college until 1979, at which time he left this position in order to devote himself to composition. In that same year he founded the Cambridge Singers, a group that under Rutter's direction has produced an impressive body of recordings. Although Rutter has composed much music for the organ and for orchestra, he is primarily known for his choral music, particularly service music for the Anglican and Episcopal Churches. He has also edited he Oxford series Carols for Choirs.

During one of his many visits to the United States , Rutter was invited by Mel Olson, director of The Voices of Mel Olson, to write this Gloria. It received its first performance in Omaha , Nebraska , in 1974. The piece is scored for an accompaniment of organ, percussion, and brass instruments.

Rutter's Gloria was previously performed by the NSCS in November 1987, under Dr. Chen's direction.

 *****

Angelus ad virginem is the earliest of the three anthems to Mary in today's program and was first discovered in a manuscript dating from 1250. Chaucer alludes to this carol in The Miller's Tale : "On which he made a nightes melodye / So sweetly, that at the chambre rong, /And Angelus ed virginem he song." David Blackwell prepared the mixed chorus setting which we use in today's performance.

*****

Gerald Finzi, born in London in 1901, was the son of a shipbroker whose Jewish forebears had emigrated from Italy in the 18th century. A succession of early traumas -- his father's death when Finzi was only eight, the death of his teacher in World War I, and the early death of three older brothers -- all of these events (in the words of the Grove Dictionary) "confirmed his introspective bent." After a brief spell in the Gloucestershire countryside, he returned to London, where he joined a circle of composers that included Gustav Holst, Edward Rubbra and Ralph Vaughan Williams. For a brief period he taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1937 he and his wife built a house in the Hampshire Hills, where he worked and composed (and grew apples) until his death. In addition to his rather impressive output as a composer, he also did much in scholarly research, most notably in editing the works of William Boyce. He contracted leukemia in 1951 and died in 1956.

Finzi's Magnificat was the composer's first overseas commission, written in 1952 for the Chorus of Smith College in Northampton , Massachusetts . Although not intended for liturgical service, the text is based on the Christmas Vesper service which, in turn, draws on the Biblical canticle found in Luke 1:45-55 in which Mary reacts to the rather astounding news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. Polyphonic settings of the Magnificat date from the 15th century, and Finzi's work follows the tradition in its essentially contrapuntal textures. Departing from the usual settings of the Magnificat, Finzi's work concludes with an Amen rather than with the traditional Gloria.

*****

Joys Seven, in a choral setting by Stephen Cleobury, describes how Mary is rather remarkably able to foresee the future life and tribulations of her new-born Babe. This carol dates from at least the 15th century, and it also appears in a Commonplace Book, compiled by Richard Hill (fl. 1500-1536). The always informative Oxford Book of Carols identifies Hill as a grocer's apprentice who had put together a hodgepodge of songs and poems, mixed in with recipes, tables of weights, medicinal cures, as well as a fair sprinkling of jokes and riddles. The manuscript was discovered in 1850 behind a bookcase where it had lain concealed for three hundred years.

 *****

Song of Mary is an original anthem composed by Richard Shephard. Commissioned by the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, it was first performed in May 2000 at the York Minster. The text is a paraphrase of the Magnificat Canticle as found in Luke 1: 46-55.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Donald Draganski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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