My amazing wife--who doubles the size of our parish choir every year for this event with extra singers from around the community through her sheer musical magnetism--also produces a gem that she is often not even given credit for in the program, and that's a series of notes on the carols that are being sung. I wish there were some literary award I could nominate her for, because, quite apart from the texts and music they describe, they are treasures in themselves. I share them herewith:
Adam Lay Ybounden: A famous and much-set text not only describes the key points of the ‘fall’ in the garden of Eden, but goes on to revel in that disaster as a catalyst for wondrous grace: “Blessed be the time that apple taken was!” Matthew Larkin’s setting for women’s voices evokes swirling and colliding spirit-winds in the cosmos – a primeval sense of redemption activated, even pre-existing the need.
What Sweeter Music: The apex of mystical poetry is surely represented in this Robert Herrick poem, with its winning images of the world awakening to welcome its king. And certainly nothing can compare with the hushed moment of sweet recognition at the center of this work: ‘We see him come, and know him ours’. Masterfully set by the great Anglican composer, John Rutter.
What Cheer?: The traditional English response is ‘Good Cheer!’ The occasion for ‘this good New Year’ is not a calendar one, but the complete joy and sense of all things being made new in Messiah’s birth, foretold in the Isaiah lesson. William Walton musical setting conjures up a village in celebration, with the cheery greeting and response echoing/reverberating among its reveling and delighted inhabitants.
God is with us: a Christmas Proclamation: John Tavener sets a dramatic musical table here with an interacting set of characters. Men begin with the title drone, evoking a sense of the presence of God underlying all of creation. The full choir plays the role of nomadic evangelists. As they wander, proclaiming their message, one can almost taste the dust of a middle eastern desert and sense whether they’ve arrived in the next town or are directly in front of us, by their dynamics. The solo evangelists give the star message, proclaiming the good news of the prophet Isaiah. These three components interact and weave together, with the choir picking up the drone, which rises to an excited pitch that almost drowns out – or at least joins – the evangelists. The final declaration, “Christ is Born!” is punctuated by a new character – the organ – as it speaks a visceral amen from the throne of God.
I Wonder as I Wander: John Rutter arranges this traditional Appalachian carol with his signature, characteristic sweet warmth. Not the only carol to span redemptive time, it connects the birth and foreshadowed death of Jesus, mixing images of the sweet birth of the newborn king with the poignancy of His future chosen sacrifice.
There is No Rose: Robert Young has been described as a “master at keeping 20th century music tasteful.” This lush setting of a traditional text, extolling Mary as the Rose that bears the fruit of the tree of Jesse, hearkens back with chant-like phrases and captures contemporary imaginations with its energy and complex harmonies. Each verse of text concludes with a trinity of Latin phrases.
Corpus Christi Carol: Lullaby carols typically use the sweet “lully, lullay” phrase to portray the effect of a mother cooing to her child. In this carol, that refrain becomes more and more anguished as Mary has a premonition of her Son’s death. The medieval text portrays God as a ‘falcon’, Mary as a ‘maid’, and Jesus as a mortally wounded knight. Her final vision is of a headstone with the inscription “
Lux Arumque: Eric Whitacre is an expert in galactic sounds of the human spirit. His glittering, impressionistic effects transform the concept of a well-defined gold ring ‘halo’ into something closer to light’s essence of liquid gold. The overall sound evokes the texture of angels’ wings.
In Time of Softest Snow: John Carter matches the sweet-storytelling of Mary Kay Beall with music that poetically and palpably punctuates the nativity story. Can you feel the ‘softest snow’ on your mittens? Perhaps you’re pushed aside as three kings hurry to the child? Arriving wise men take time to ponder; hearts almost stop at mention of the ‘pure and gentle Lamb’. And then - the striking awe of ‘the great I Am’! The Christmas scene is painted, and we’re drawn in to the action: nativity characters in their traditional places catch our observer eyes and you just might feel the invited singers kneeling in love…under the stage light of ‘the Star’.
Silent Night: What can we say? This is the first time, in our nine years of presenting this service that we’ve included a traditional, recognizable carol – a melody that everyone can hum! Mark Johnson’s captivating setting frames a stacked-up, expansive, universe-reaching middle verse with pure, holy night verses by the women (opening) and then the men (closing). Sheer ‘ah’…
While All Things Were in Quiet Silence: This carol hearkens back to where we began with our first carol. Hints of swirling spirit expand, taking on ever more form and presence in surrounding an unspeakable event – the leaping of The Word from the throne of God. Rorem’s compositional vehicle might be compared to a musical spaceship that, with ever transitioning harmonies, hints at touching down, but only settles at the holy end.