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
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
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
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
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
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
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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